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More college-educated jump tracks to become skilled manual laborers

Just a few miles from downtown D.C. and across the Anacostia River, employment opportunities can be especially difficult for people who lack education and job skills.
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Armed with a bachelor's degree in theology from Notre Dame, Adam Osielski was pondering a route well traveled: law school.

He watched his friends work long hours as paralegals while studying law and weighed the all-encompassing commitment. That was five years ago. Today, Osielski, 29, is a journeyman electrician rather than a law firm associate. Or, as Osielski might say with his minor in French, an ?lectricien.

In a region in which 47 percent of Washington area residents have a college degree, the highest rate in the nation, Osielski is among a small but apparently growing number of the college-educated who are taking up the trades.

They started out studying aerospace engineering, creative writing and urban planning. But somewhere on the path to accumulating academic credentials, they decided that working with their hands sounded more pleasant -- and lucrative -- than a lot of white-collar work. So bye-bye to term papers and graduate theses, and hello to apprenticeships to become plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics and carpenters.

For Osielski, the attraction was natural. After graduating from Notre Dame, he spent two years in Haiti working with a charity building schools, but he wasn't allowed to do the one task that seemed most intriguing: wiring the electricity.

When he returned from Haiti, he began working as a furniture mover in the District to pay the bills and discovered the satisfaction that comes with an empty truck at the end of a day. A legal career seemed too much like drudgery.

"I have friends my age who are just deciding to go to graduate school," said Osielski, who graduated this month from an apprenticeship program run by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26 in Lanham. "I'm glad to be already working and developing a career."

The college drumbeat

Economists and labor scholars say the rocky economy has been a boon for trade schools. But they also point to policymakers, guidance counselors and parents who don't value the trades and overvalue college as the gateway to success. As a result, American students come to trade apprenticeships relatively late, often after they've already tried college. The average age of the beginning apprentice in the United States is 25; in Germany, 18.

"It's hard to get high school counselors to point anyone but their not-very-good students, or the ones in trouble, toward construction," said Dale Belman, a labor economist at Michigan State University. "Counselors want everyone to go to college. So now we're getting more of the college-educated going into the trades."

Jarrad Taylor, for one, always assumed while growing up in Pennsylvania that he would attend college. An honors student in high school, it's what his guidance counselors advised him to do. It's what his mother and father, who was a machinist and welder, wanted for him.

So he attended Penn State for two years, taking courses in engineering and creative writing. Then he went looking for a summer job. A family friend who is a plumber needed an assistant for a job in the Washington area, and Taylor's parents urged him to go.

"My parents told him to work the hell out of me so I'd run back to college," said Taylor, now 30. "Seven years later, here I am."

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