Tom Purcell: ‘Trading up’: Daughters, sons can build careers debt-free |
Tom Purcell, Columnist

Tom Purcell: ‘Trading up’: Daughters, sons can build careers debt-free

Tom Purcell

This Thursday is Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, the one day every year when young people can learn — in person — about the work world of their parents or mentor.

This year, more young people are showing interest in the trades — with good reason.

According to Forbes, college tuition is rising nearly eight times faster than wages, with more than $1.5 trillion in college loans outstanding and the average borrower owing more than $37,000.

Though a college degree is still desirable, borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to pay for one is causing many young people to reconsider their options.

Popular Mechanics, a “must” read for people who like making things with their hands, says the trades offer young people an opportunity to learn while they earn — and to complete their college degrees in a less conventional, debt-free manner: at company expense, over time.

Want to be a welder, who joins two pieces of metal together as one? This simple concept builds the cars we drive and the buildings in which we work and live. The finest welders do important work that pays handsomely.

The magazine explains lots of ways to get started in the trades, then attain various certifications while improving skills.

Electrician is another fine trade. The electrician I use got started as an apprentice right out of high school. Just over a decade later, he’s doing big jobs for a builder that put a six-figure income in his pocket. It’s a marvel to see him work hard and experience his version of the American dream, which is still alive and well.

As a junior in high school, I decided I was going to be a stonemason. Stone and block retaining walls all over Pittsburgh’s hilly terrain were forever in need of rebuilding. I made a lot of mistakes, but eventually I learned how to properly build a foundation, hand-cut stone and backfill a wall.

Many years later as I drive around, I’m proud when I see my craftsmanship still standing strong. And I’m reminded that it took me a ridiculously long time doing other work to earn as much as I did building walls in high school and college.

There should be no shame in pursuing a trade. Rather than call it a trade, call it a skill for which others are willing to pay handsomely. All skill development is valuable, and there’s no telling where someone who likes to learn may end up.

One of my favorite “blue collar” stories is about the youngest son and 15th child born to a working- class father. He attended school for only two years. As a teen, his options were limited, so he apprenticed with his older brother in a print shop, a messy blue-collar job.

His trade helped him master communication, business management, politics and human nature. He would go on to write and publish influential newspapers and books. Franchising his printing business in other cities, he became wealthy enough at the young age of 42 to dedicate the rest of his life to his country and to inventing many innovations that we still use today.

His name? Ben Franklin — one of America’s Founders.

If old Ben were still around and still running his print shop, he’d welcome young visitors for Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day this Thursday — to show them what he knew so well: the value of careers in the trades.

Freelance writer Tom Purcell of Library is author of “Misadventures of a 1970s Childhood.” Visit him on the web at

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