Downtown View: Working Successfully

It seems that every educator, official, non-profit head and parent are urging kids to go to college, whether they are interested in scholarly pursuits or not.

But there are young people who are making it in the world without a college education. Here are two of them.

Roz and “the love of her life,” as she puts it, are both 29 and live in southern New Hampshire. Roz is a hairdresser. Her boyfriend—let’s call him Josh—is a firefighter. Josh bought the 2002-built house they live in and pays the mortgage. Roz is responsible for the utilities. They aren’t married, but they are committed to one another, and probably will marry if and when they decide to have children, said Roz.

Neither Roz nor Josh went to college. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t prepared for life. Roz knew when she was 14 that she wanted to be a hairdresser. She styled and cut her friends’ hair, and after high school went to a beauty school. She called it a rip-off. But she put in the required hours and passed the boards. Then she got herself hired at salons whose owners she admired, in effect apprenticing herself to more experienced practitioners. Now she works four days a week and has a reputation for being a good colorist and stylist. She spends her free time cooking, hiking and homemaking.

Given her determination to prepare herself for work, she has found a like-minded companion in Josh. He went into the Air Force right after high school. He learned to fight fires through his service, where he specialized in firefighting at airports. He got to see some of the world, since he was stationed for awhile in Hungary. He did not try to avoid Afghanistan or Iraq—he just never got sent there. When he left the Air Force, he went to Washington State for further firefighting training. He also was certified as an EMT. Now he works for the fire department of a small city, and serves on the firefighting squad at a nearby airport.

These young people lead an easy life right now. They’re not juggling kids, work and one another. They’ve already taken on responsibilities that many college-educated 20-somethings have yet to manage. Roz says that if they marry, they will have a small wedding because they don’t want to waste money. With such accomplishments and shared attitudes, they may never be rich, but they are likely to prosper.

Credit their work ethic and their determination to acquire the skills they knew they would need. They are disciplined and goal-oriented, traits that help in every job.

They’re doing well, but we haven’t done well for kids like them. Many non-profits that support kids during high school, such as the Steppingstone Foundation, are focused on getting kids into college and keeping them there. That’s good. But fewer educational non-profits help kids not bound for college.

Kids interested in the trades can get training at vocational high schools, private certification schools, technical schools and community colleges, but the quality in these programs is uneven. The North Bennet Street School and the armed forces stand out on the successful end of the spectrum, while Bunker Hill Community College has drawn criticism for its low—under 10 percent—graduation rate. The for-profit training schools leave much to be desired too, as Roz pointed out. At one time there was a private vocational school three blocks from where I live. Community meetings would sometimes take place there. When you looked at the ugly way the air conditioning had been installed, you vowed never to hire anyone who had been a student there.

Talented people with jobs that don’t require college degrees—hairdressers, electricians, plumbers, medical technicians, carpenters, violin makers and police officers—can have as satisfying lives as those who graduate from college. Moreover, if they are well trained and enthusiastic about their work, their jobs are as recession-proof as those of lawyers and accountants.

Forbes magazine reported this spring that fewer young people are going into the skilled trades, causing a shortage of welders, electricians and machinists. One wonders if part of the problem has been the emphasis on persuading young people to go to college instead of helping them learn all kinds of skills that are marketable. One also wonders if it’s a class thing.

It’s hard for the general public to do without people who want to work with their hands, as it is so delicately put. When lights go on the fritz, most people will want someone expert in electricity. If you play in a symphony orchestra, you need a violin maker who can repair the instrument that is critical to your job.

Governor Patrick and President Obama have both been pushing for reforms in the community colleges and more funding for workforce training. Right now some of the private, for-profit programs are expensive, leaving kids with debt.

But with good training, people like Roz and “the love of her life” can find job success and thrive. And everyone who needs their services benefits.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at