18-year-olds are skipping college to take high-paying oil field jobs. A risky move leading to dead-end jobs or an avenue to a middle-class life?
A New York Times story about some 18-year-olds making the “risky decision” to go work at oil field jobs paying lucrative salaries raises the question of how this compare with the alternatives. Substantial risks are also being taken by students enrolling in college with poor chances of obtaining a degree or of graduating unprepared to secure jobs that will enable them to pay off their crippling student loans. Heather McDonald wrote about this in National Review.
The New York Times seems concerned that teens in the fracking belt of eastern Montana are opting to work in the new oil-field economy right after high school rather than going straight on to college. A front-page story warns: Taking a job is “a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up.”
Let’s see. Where is a teenager more likely to learn the basic and transferable virtue of showing up every day and on time, not to mention how to get along with a boss and fit into an organization — as a communications and binge-drinking double major at Missoula State University, or as a mechanic fixing broken rig equipment? Too many high-school graduates are reflexively going to college as it is, without a clue what they are doing there or how to take advantage of higher education. Mandatory stints in the private economy before college enrollment could do wonders for study skills. If, by deferring or maybe even skipping college entirely, students were foregoing their one hope for immersion in Western civilization, there would indeed be grounds for regret. But colleges’ own curricular decisions have long since destroyed their right to present themselves as a gateway for precious knowledge of the past.
Walter Russell Mead hailed it as “excellent news for teens looking to earn a middle class life without going to college”.
The real significance of the story is that brown jobs are making it possible for Americans to make a decent living without a college degree. It’s a heartening sign of a new reality that some teens are finding ways to launch a middle class life directly out of high school. As the energy boom continues, we may be seeing a lot more of this. New developments in oil and gas extraction are already helping to point us towards energy independence. If they can also help build up the middle class, that’s even more reason to celebrate them.
So, what is it? Risky dead-end move or a path to a middle-class life? If you believe college is not right for everyone, these young adults in Montana are probably doing the right thing.