The Corner

College vs. Work

A reader, following my earlier post on “Why College?”

Derb,

Saw your post today about college and thought you would find this interesting and depressing.

I work as an energy trader and recently took a customer down to Appalachia to visit some coal mines. On our visit to one of the mines, there was a large sign prominently displayed: Accepting Applications. Once the meeting and mine tour were finished we were in the mine manager’s office and I asked him, “How come you’re hiring? Did you just lose some workers?”

“Hell, no!” was the reply. “We are always looking for people.”

Not sure if you have had the chance to visit Appalachia, but there are large pockets of poverty here, especially when the overall unemployment throughout the country is close to 10 percent. Hard to imagine there would be any job openings. So I asked him again, “How come? Don’t you pay enough?”

He explained to me that a high school graduate can start working at the mine and make roughly $40K a year. After 90 days of training (or in the industry lingo, when a worker goes from being a “red hat” to a “black hat”) that pay jumps up to about $50K a year.

Now granted, this isn’t easy work. It’s a 50-hour work week (with overtime of course), which includes night shifts and weekends. But $50K for a high school graduate?

The manager went on to explain to me that, “If you know which end of a wrench to pick up” the company will be glad to train you to be an electrician, equipment operator, etc. in which case your salary will rise to $75–$100K a year.

I asked him, “Then how come you can’t get workers?”

His reply was telling. “All you have to do to get a mine job is come to work every day, work reasonably hard, and pee clean. We just can’t find people who can do this.”

Apparently it’s not even illegal drugs. Legal prescription painkillers are the main cause. People will shop doctors and get multiple prescriptions. Doctors are happy to prescribe these, because they run clinics and make money from Medicaid selling the pills.

Finally I asked the manager, who was in his mid 50s or so, “What about your kids?”

He replied: “Oh, they both went to college.”

“What are they doing now?”

“Working for the state government.”

“How much do they get paid?”

“About $25 grand a year.”

I won’t waste your time describing how many things about this 5 minute conversation made me depressed about the current state of the U.S.A. I’ll focus on one thing.

How can someone rationally decide that it is a better choice to go to college, waste time and money for four years, only to get a job that pays half or less of another job you could get? Are people so deathly afraid of hard work?

I grew up in a steel mill town in eastern Pennsylvania. Before unions ruined the mill in the early 80s, I can recall most of the men in the town being happy, well paid, successful blue collar workers who could afford nice homes, nice cars, vacations, all while having a sense of pride and accomplishment in what they were doing.

Where has this attitude gone?

I’m fortunate enough to make a comfortable living sitting behind a desk, but if I could make more as a laborer, I would do it in an instant.

I just leave that for commenters to chew on. One feature that stopped my eye, though, was the bit about prescription painkillers. What’s this all about? Are these really such potent narcotics? They must be doing something people really, really want: Here on Long Island we just recently had an exceptionally cruel murder committed by a painkiller addict. What do drug-legalization libertarians have to say about this? These painkillers are obviously legal.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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