Joe College, er... Joe Tech School

This column was published Sunday, April 21, 2019, in The Manhattan Mercury.

I am a college dropout. I am also a technical school graduate. Not surprisingly, the two are intertwined.

People spend their time and energy on things that have value in their lives, and I always managed to find something I valued more than going to class.

My career aspiration as a teenager was to be a Major League Baseball play-by-play announcer. At the time, there were 24 of those jobs on the planet, so I figured I would start low and work my way up. What did Keynesian macroeconomics have to do with the infield fly rule? How was sitting in a lecture hall listening to a windbag professor drone on about the nationalist spirit of post-revolutionary France going to help me identify the hanging slider?

A perfect storm of emotions got me out of college and into tech school. Impatient, in love and cocksure. I was following a girl from Wichita to the Twin Cities. Five years before Tom Cruise got down to risky business, I had the strong sense that Brown Institute in Minneapolis could use a guy like me.

Courtesy: Bruce Browning

Courtesy: Bruce Browning

Tech school not only taught me the basics of an industry, it’s where I began to refine a set of soft skills that I have carried with me since. Broadcasting is nothing if not precise, and the seed for the art and science of time management was planted.

In tech school, my God-given gifts were revealed, much quicker than they ever would have been in college. The ability to communicate, to use the written and spoken word in such a fashion that it impacts those on the receiving end, whether I was adlibbing a weather forecast on the radio or helping repurpose a statewide advocacy organization to be relevant in the face of massive demographic and cultural change.

My tech school education landed me a foot-in-the-door job running master control for midnight-to-dawn movies at a TV station in Wichita, which led, six months later, to an announcer’s job at a connected radio station, which led to a radio/TV news job in Hays, which led to more and better broadcast journalism gigs, which led to politics, speechwriting, which led to advocacy and systems work.

It took a couple of years before realizing the notion of landing one of only two dozen jobs calling balls and strikes on the radio for a big league ballclub wasn’t realistic. Plus, by then, I wanted to stay in Kansas and Denny Matthews wasn’t going anywhere.

For too long, it seems our society has defined success based solely on going to college. Today we face mounting workforce needs. Parents, mentors and school counselors can share the good word that many well-paying, in-demand careers do not require a bachelor’s degree. The pathway to happiness and success need not always run through a university.

In the fourth quarter of last year, 56,000 jobs went unfilled in Kansas. Imagine the economic impact of filling those if people had the needed skills. Of course, we badly need doctors, engineers and accountants. What we don’t need are those who spend ten years finding themselves, living on student loans, only to finally graduate with a degree in Precambrian Anthropology and $100,000 in debt.

Instead, we need them to learn a trade, fill jobs in our economy, earn some money, and then maybe later they can make an informed choice to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program when they know what they want out of the experience. 

Arguing this line in a community whose main economic driver is the propagation of college degrees may border on blasphemy, but the paths available for achieving successful careers should not be limiting. On-the-job training, apprenticeships, technical schools – and universities should be in the mix. Would I recommend my path to young people today, seeking a post-high school direction? Without a doubt, especially if, like me at the time, they’re facing a perfect storm, or even variable cloudiness.

Am I the white-collar tech school graduate outlier? Possibly, but maybe it takes a few outlier examples to help illustrate this fact. I am a living, breathing, column-writing, taxpaying example of how to construct a rewarding career, completely unencumbered by a college degree.

Young people going straight to work or attending a tech school out of high school are not a failure. Just the opposite. Kansas needs young people pursuing all paths if we are to meet our future needs. 

There’s no shame in being a college dropout. In fact, if you haven’t already picked up on this notion, I’m rather proud of it.