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  • Writer's pictureCorey L. Wilson

Careers Without College

Updated: Nov 28

Most Americans have been conditioned to believe that if you don’t enroll in college after high school, you have almost no chance at a successful life. That’s not true.

As a 3rd-year engineering student working for a semester at an old-school machine tool company in Detroit, Kent Misegades got his first inkling that alternative paths into careers other than expensive college degrees existed.

On his first day of work, the shop foreman told Kent in no uncertain terms that he was not to disturb the gray-haired “master craftsman” seated next to an enormous CNC machining center, reading the Wall Street Journal while making metal chips. “If we lose him, this company goes under,” was the explanation.

The second time Kent’s college-boy pride was shaken came a few years and two engineering degrees later, at his first job working in the German aircraft industry. When he applied for an opening as a flight test engineer, he was told flatly that since he had not apprenticed first as an aircraft mechanic or fabricator, he had no chance.

About the same time, Kent was dating his future wife, who despite having “only” apprenticed to enter her career in business administration, was jet-setting around Europe looking after multiple production plants for her employer, a major global vehicle parts manufacturer.

In Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, apprenticeships–not college–have been the primary route into careers for four centuries. Many graduates go on to earn college degrees when these are of benefit, for instance MBAs are popular among former apprentices-turned-entrepreneurs.

Despite the popularity of apprenticeships in these countries, knowledge of them remains poor in the US–but it shouldn’t be for those who know their history.

Many of our Founding Fathers and leading industrialists entered careers without college degrees

For instance, we have Benjamin Franklin (printer), Benjamin Rush (physician), George Washington (surveyor), Alexander G. Bell (telephone), Andrew Carnegie (steel making), Thomas Edison (electrical devices), Henry Ford (autos), Daniel Guggenheim (mining), Glenn Curtiss (bicycles, motorcycles, aircraft), Cyrus McCormick (agricultural equipment, International Harvester), and the Wright Brothers (printing, bicycles, aircraft).

Numerous careers in art, farming, construction, manufacturing, theater, music, aviation, marine-related, the military, and others traditionally require some form of apprenticeship or work-study to acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed.

A good reference is Rory Groves’ excellent book on the subject, Durable Trades, Front Porch Republic Books. The author describes its key tenets thus: “Resilient nations rely on resilient families. Historically it has been decentralized, interdependent families and communities working together that have best weathered the storms of adversity.”

The ”Gold Standard” of apprenticeships is found in the little, land-locked, mountainous country of Switzerland, where over 70 percent of all careers start with a 3-4 year apprenticeship beginning around age 16.

The Swiss have refined what they call their “Dual Education” system for over four centuries with outstanding results in terms of low youth unemployment and crime, a high standard of living, and world-leading companies in many fields.

Graduation rates from apprenticeships there are very high, and 50 percent of graduates go on to higher degrees, often paid by their employers. There are no dead-ends in Switzerland, where an apprentice often rises to the highest ranks in their chosen profession. Germany and Austria have similar programs with similarly positive outcomes.

This February 28, 2022 article from The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal is by Kent Misegades.

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