Career Paths

I Realized I Needed To Back Off The College Talk With My Kids

My knee-jerk reaction to complaints about homework was to say it was college prep. But what if I changed the way I approached the subject?

“Mom, this is so dumb. Why am I learning this?” So it begins: my almost 8-year-old was already complaining about the necessity of doing some basic math homework. It’s a sentiment I’d heard many times teaching high school for a decade, and my go-to response just popped right out: “So you can go to college and get a job.” While it’s not inaccurate, it’s one of hundreds of small comments in my kids’ lifetime that has set the expectation that after high school comes college, which will undoubtedly lead to an enjoyable and well-paying job that keeps them happy and sustains their families for life.

Coming from a family of immigrants who worked 80 hour weeks as mechanics and construction workers, with a few others pursing teaching and law, I saw a wide gamut of success, fulfillment, and struggle in both trade work and college-educated career paths. Both had immense trials and neither held the secret to one route to success. So I reached out to Joshua Page, a father of two, a speaker, and author of “What Does Your Daddy Do?” who is fighting back against the knee-jerk assumption that college is the right path for everybody. It’s the first of a series of books he plans to write helping kids learn about various trade-based career paths, such as his own.

The electrician, who now runs his own successful business, didn’t like school when he was young and knew he wasn’t college-bound. His mother passed away when he was just 13, he spent his most formative teen years bouncing around between homes, trying to find his path. “So I found out about this school that you only had to go two weeks out of the month, and the other two weeks are in the trade. I was like, sign me up,” he says. He explored cosmetology and plumbing before finding his passion for electrical work.

“Senior year I smartened up and said, you know what? My mom’s dead. I live in the breezeway at my aunt’s house. I don’t talk to my dad. I’ve got to do this.” Three years later, he had an electrical license; he’s now been running his own company for 11 years.

Talking to Page, I became painfully aware of the hundreds of career paths I hadn’t really presented to my kids as options. I also realized all I didn’t know about how important trades would be in the upcoming decades, such as a greener economy calling for more electricians. That’s what he wants to change. He was inspired to write a children’s book targeting younger kids, offering other potential opportunities. “We need people to go to college. We need people to go to the military. So I’m not saying don’t do any of that. All that I’m preaching is that we give the kids another option,” he says. “Growing up I had no clue what an electrician was. I didn’t know what a carpenter did. I didn’t know what a welder or plumber did.”

As Page talked more about his childhood and learning style, which he describes as “kinesthetic,” my eldest son came to mind. The one who wants to build duct tape sculptures using random items from the junk drawer, or obstacle courses out of pieces of his dad’s wood pile. “Some of the best electricians that get hired into the company, fixed their dirt bikes, built legos, climbed trees, worked with their hands…because they’re kinesthetic,” Page said. “We are not auditory learners. We are very visual…we can put our hands on it and figure it out.”

I have at least one kid like that. And I so I asked Page about how he feels about his own job — not just as a practical matter, but in a deeper sense.

He says that for him, the ability to run your own business, to be your own boss, is where the fulfillment comes from. Not to mention the instant gratification of flipping a light switch you’ve just fixed and... it works. He’s proud to drive down the street, explaining to his son that he wired that house or helped build that building.

It’s also an essential option in an ever-concerning world of college debt, where careers don’t necessarily lead to stable jobs that pay it back off. The average college debt is $25,921 for a four-year degree at a public university; in contrast, apprentices are paid for their work and many employers even pay for schooling.

Page isn’t alone in thinking it’s time for a new approach. Dr. Shaun Dougherty, Vanderbilt University associate professor of public policy and education, says the last two decades have caused a “shift in focus.”

“Part of this is an acknowledgment of the previous two decades of pushing college for all. We’ve got lots of evidence of college debt, not as much growth in degree completion, and plenty of anecdotal accounting of individuals who have bachelor’s degrees but are not in the high earning positions that were sort of advertised,” he says, calling it a “reckoning” around those realities. In addition, he points to shortages in skilled trade workers, like carpenters and HVAC pros, especially as many of them are starting to age out and look toward retirement.

Dougherty says we are working against “classic notions of what it means to be college educated versus working in the skilled trades,” and parents themselves are having to consider alternate perspectives. He says that long-term employment and earnings are still better with a four-year degree, but there are other values to consider.

As a parent himself, he's already talking to his 8 and 10-year-old about what types of at-home jobs he can handle, versus what he’d need to hire someone to help with. He gives the example of a child who wants to be an astronaut — are we teaching them about all the supporting roles that make space flight possible at NASA, and not just the person flying into space?

So the next time my child asks about the purpose of math, I might have a different answer. Slight shifts in the conversation about college as an option, not the option, will hopefully normalize and encourage kids to pursue any path they are attracted to, especially if they don’t want to go to college.

Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.

Alex has a Master of Arts in Teaching, and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications/Journalism, both from Miami University. She has also taught high school for 10 years, specializing in media education.