Spring 2020/ Keith Shearon

As a community college professor, I frequently speak with students who have multiple interests, gifts, and talents. When a parent comes to me for advice about helping their student choose a single major from their many interests, I reassure the parent that their student does not have to know exactly what she wants to do before she enters college. I have come to believe that if we can help our students narrow their interests down to a few, then they probably have the focus that they need for a successful and happy career. I also remind parents that their children may have more than one career—after all, Paul was an apostle, a scholar, and a tent maker.

To parents of children who are approaching leaving the nest, success is often defined fairly simply: we want our children to be happy in their work, and we want them to be able to pay their bills. Toward the end of the high school years or post-secondary education, I would propose that parents and teachers should not only focus on their students’ happiness and fiscal aptitude, but that they also keep an eye open for two attributes that are often overlooked in helping their children select a career path: critical thinking and an affinity toward manual dexterity.

First, how do your students think—especially how do they approach problems and think their way through them? Do they easily give up? Do they approach situations simply looking for the correct answer? Do they believe that if they work at a problem long enough that they could find a solution—or perhaps even make a new discovery? Perseverance is a trait that will help students be more likely to succeed in college, in family, and in life, regardless of what comes their way. Too often, parents err on the side of complaisance, robbing their children of opportunities to develop perseverance. Two simple ways to build this character trait are to encourage your child to persevere the next time she or he is ready to throw in the towel, and to include your child in your own problem solving. The next time you are planning the logistics of a hectic day, balancing a checkbook, or fixing something around the house, ask them to pitch in. Afterward, celebrate your victory with ice cream!

Second, do your students enjoy working with their hands? In college, students are often shocked to discover that they enjoy working with their hands. When it comes to making things, our culture doesn’t really champion jobs that include manual labor. For some reason, people think that working with your hands means working your fingers to the bone. Our culture, especially public schools in the last thirty years, has tended to move away from encouraging children to work with their hands. Working with our hands is often natural, enjoyable, and brings a special kind of enjoyment that should not be overlooked. Even if we are not the craftiest of folk, making something useful means much to us, whether it’s a meal or a piece of furniture. It can also be financially advantageous to be able to fix things yourself instead of paying someone else.

How do parents recognize and encourage thinking minds and working hands in their children’s education? Many people think that one good way is to have their children pursue engineering. The sad truth is that some engineers work with their hands early on, but I would say most engineers move away from working with their hands soon after college, and some find engineering jobs where they rarely lift a finger. Engineering alone often isn’t the answer. In 2020, a technologist degree with a transfer path to a four-year college degree may be the better way.

A technologist is what we used to call a technician. He is not the engineer that makes $100,000 designing cars, but the BMW technician that makes $100,000 fixing BMWs. Completing a two-year A.A.S degree in welding might provide a very lucrative, if slightly dirty, $60,000 income for your student while he or she continues to study mechanical or civil engineering at a university. This stepping stone approach to career configuration allows a person to fully use their brain to fix other people’s designs before they become designers, and in the long run, it makes them twice as valuable to a company than an engineer who never served first as a technician.

You can apply this stepping-stone approach to education in any discipline. My youngest daughter began community college at age thirty-one and will have an A.A.S. and an RN degree through Vance-Granville Community College. The A.A.S. degree will allow her to work making money as a technician while she continues her education and studies for her master’s degree in midwifery. Community college gave her the training and experience that she needed to begin her journey into medicine. Trade students can have two trades, such as electrical technology and plumbing, that equip them to operate one larger successful business.

My parents used to call this approach a “fall back.” By that, they meant that a trade was employment that I could retreat to if things didn’t go my way as a professional engineer. Instead, if you think of your child’s educational investment as you would think of a financial investment, you might consider the stepping-stone approach to be like portfolio diversity. This diversity can be a growth strategy, but it is most often a guard against loss. If you spread your investments across different kinds of companies, some will be performing well even when others aren’t. This spread of assets across a diverse portfolio is a good way of thinking about being prepared on two job fronts so that you can earn a living and put something back for old age even when your chosen field is under performing. Just as in financial investing, this stepping-stone approach to education can pay dividends in your child’s career.

I have a technical trade and I have a professional career. I started my adult life as an electronics technician, trained by the United States Air Force. That two years of training and two years of practice as a journeyman RADAR repairman prepared me to start as a technician in civilian life. I parlayed that into six figures before going back to get a four-year degree as a product designer. Now I make a living as a consultant to businesses that are training the next generations of technicians, engineers, and managers. But I routinely fix electronics, weld, assemble engines, and do all sorts of other mechanical and electrical things using my experience as a technician.

As a community college educator, I would urge home educators to seriously consider your students’ futures in skilled labor. Pray and think about how they will serve God over the span of their entire career. Watch your children to see what their thinking and physical activities indicate about their career joy. Professionals can have a trade as a fallback, a side income, or a practical and enjoyable hobby.

Lastly, remember that a good plumber is hard to find—even in the best of times—and should easily stay busy when the economy isn’t rolling along. Trades are practical, and you might be surprised that your plumber could become wealthy, too. Paul’s trade was one that was in high demand, and that gave him the flexibility and opportunities to serve and share the gospel with all sorts of people. In that regard, an education in a trade can also prepare our students for missions.

Keith Shearon is the director of customized training, and former department chair of applied technologies at Vance-Granville Community College in Henderson, NC.  He enjoys a variety of hobbies with his homeschooled grandchildren.