Meet Jack The Plumber/ Philosopher

Over the weekend, I came across an editorial by Jack Hope, a philosopher turned philosopher/plumber, that puts a name and face to a question that has garnered a reasonable amount of attention in recent months – Should a college degree still be hailed as a key barometer of achievement, and, with few exceptions, a prerequisite to, and trophy of, the American dream?

As Jack illustrates, forgoing college in lieu of learning a trade isn’t about embracing mediocrity; it’s just plain common economic sense, particularly in light of the current employment dynamic.  Considering that 80% of Americans view themselves to be ‘above average’, this might be a tough pill for many to swallow.  But, once we are able to overcome any social stigma, it will undoubtedly make all of us better off.

Jack the Philosopher/Plumber writes:

Allow me to introduce myself; my name is Jack Hope and I own Hope Plumbing in Indianapolis, Indiana.  I want to speak briefly about education, the economy, and the skilled tradesperson.  While I acknowledge that my education has helped to make me who I am, I would like to challenge the notion that everyone should go to college. 

With the help of two loving parents, I graduated from a private high school in Indianapolis, and went on to pursue an undergraduate degree from Indiana University, which was also paid for by my parents.  From there, I earned my Masters degree, also from IU, in Philosophy with a Special Concentration in Bioethics.  During this time, I became the Philosophy Department’s teaching assistant, which allowed me to design and teach my own courses.  As a result, in addition to receiving a small stipend, my own tuition was also paid for.

I have subsequently gone on to instruct philosophy and ethics courses at two prominent educational institutions, and now, I currently own a successful plumbing business in Indianapolis.

I want you to ask yourself a set of questions.  How many college-educated people do you know that work in a job that requires substantially less education?  How many college-educated people do you know that can’t find jobs at all?  How many people do you know who do not work in a field from which their degree came?  How many college educated people do you know that can’t afford their student loan payments?  If you are at all like me, you know plenty. 

As noted in a recent Business Insider article, “the pool of college graduates is growing more than twice as fast as the pool of jobs requiring a college degree.”  

Now, ask yourself another set of questions.  How many skilled tradespeople do you know that work in a job that requires substantially less education?  How many skilled tradespeople do you know that can’t find jobs at all?  How many skilled tradespeople do you know who do not work in a field from which their degree came?  How many skilled tradespeople do you know that cannot afford their student loans?  It you are at all like me, you do not know any.  But for many of you, sadly, that may be because you just do not know any tradespeople.

If you don’t really know a skilled tradesperson or what it means to be one, I will tell you. A skilled tradesperson is simply a person who works in a skilled trade.  Licensed plumbers, electricians, mechanics, insulators and drywall installers are all great examples of skilled tradespeople.  A skilled tradesperson typically spends time, following high school, in an apprenticeship program and when it is complete, earns a license in his or her trade.

No matter what you think about the economy, we can all agree that a stronger, safer, more diversified and growing economy is something we all want.  How do we obtain such an economy?  For starters, people need jobs.  People need jobs that allow them to pay the bills, have a little fun and save some money for later. This can be really hard to do if you have $8,000 in student loan payments each year and a job that pays $38,000 per year. 

So what do we do? 

We need to again start telling people that it is okay (and even admirable) to get their hands dirty.  Manual labor is not evil.  Have you ever considered that most people in the United States can no longer really fix anything?  How many people do you know that can repair their own toilet, change the oil in their own car, or even simply change a tire?  What happened to teaching young people how to fix stuff?  We have long been a nation that prides itself on hard work.  Put down the iPad and help your kids take something apart.  If we want people to find jobs, let us figure out how to get people the skills needed for the jobs that exist today, and 5 or 10 years down the road.

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity
will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” – John W. Gardner

Every time I talk to someone about plumbing, they comment on how gross it must be and every time I reply, “that is why they pay us the big bucks.”  People, of course, think I am kidding, but the average starting salary for a licensed plumber in our shop is $45,000 per year with full health benefits, life insurance, a paid cell phone, a take home vehicle and matched retirement savings. 

While that may not be big bucks for some of you big shots, a new report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers finds that just three liberal arts majors had average starting salaries that topped $40,000 in 2012.  The average cost of tuition for a college degree from a private college is about $127,000 and the average cost of tuition for a degree from a public college is about $37,800.  On the other hand, the average cost of a (4) year apprenticeship program for a plumber in Indiana is $5,800 and an employer will often cover those costs for a good employee.  We require all of our technicians to attend the apprenticeship program and those costs are covered in full. 

What Hope Plumbing needs, and what the economy needs, is large amounts of skilled tradespeople that are ready to go to work.  Please don’t get me wrong, I think that a Liberal Arts degree can be fantastic for the right person, but I challenge the notion that everyone needs a bachelor’s degree.  One of the largest problems that Hope Plumbing has (as well as most other skilled trades businesses) has, boils down to finding qualified tradespeople.  Find me a person with a few years of experience, a little bit of personality and a plumbing license and I will find them a job.  Find me a person with little to no experience, massive amounts of personality and a Liberal Arts degree and I will have an engaging conversation with them about the “original position” most recently espoused by John Rawls in Justice as Fairness and the irony of mentioning it here.

Stop being lazy, back away from the computer screen, pick up a hammer and learn how to build something. 

Jack Hope

It’s refreshing to see that Jack the Plumber is not Joe the Plumber. He doesn’t politicize the issue or talk about how many people he employs, the ramifications of ObamaCare, or lament a lack of understanding on the part of east coast liberals.  It’s simply a common sense and practical real-world viewpoint and recommendation in the context of the world we live in, and what, in all likelihood, the world will look like five or ten years from now.

While I think Jack’s message succinctly encapsulates this message better than any statistic, this is clearly a topic that has received considerable attention of late, particularly in the context of long-term underemployment.  The oft brusque Mayor Bloomberg caught heat recently for saying that people should consider skipping college to be a plumber or to master another in-demand skill or craft.  The statistics (taken from Richard Vedder’s excellent essay on the subject), it seems, are very much in Bloomberg’s (and Jack’s) favor, particularly for those that do not excel at a handful of elite colleges and universities:

  • 48% of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests requires less than a four-year college education.
  • 33% of college graduates said they did not feel that college had fully prepared them for the working world, and 55% said they’d choose a different school or a different major if they could do it again.
  • Youth unemployment is at its highest level since WW2; not to mention 35% of Millennials – those born in the 80s or 90s – still live with their parents.
  • 32% of graduates from the past two years reported a current salary of less than $25k.
  • The average student debt has doubled in the last 10 years, to $40k, and it’s only going in one direction.
  • And considering that 45% of those entering college fail to graduate within six years, why do too many kids even bother?

Most amazingly, only 30 million jobs exist in America that require a college education, and there are currently more than 60 million Americans with a college degree.  Furthermore, over the next 7 years, the number of Americans with a Bachelors Degree is projected to increase by 30% (19 million), while the number of jobs requiring a college degree by only 14% (7 million).

“LinkedIn is the Match.com of the underemployed.”@GSElevator

Hence, more and more college graduates are crowding out High School graduates in traditionally blue-collar, low-skilled jobs – working in The Gap, at Starbucks, or as a bartender.

A great way of articulating this:

“Suppose in 1970, a bar owner advertised for a bartender and received 15 applicants, most or all of whom had high school diplomas.  He would most likely choose the bartender on criteria unrelated to educational credentials.  Suppose today, another bar owner likewise advertises for a bartender, and also gets 15 applicants, but four have bachelor’s degrees.  The owner, to minimize time and resources devoted to interviewing a long line of applicants, might restrict interviews to the four holders of degrees, since it is likely a priori that these persons will on average be a little smarter, a little more reliable, etc., than the other applicants.  Education, heretofore not much of a screening device, has become one in terms of hiring the most qualified person for jobs for which skill requirements are relatively modest and learned on the job quickly.  The existence of an ample supply of college graduate bartenders has created a demand for them.”[i]

From this, one might conclude that a college degree is necessary now more than ever, just to compete for jobs that traditionally would not require a college degree.  This logic is fine if you want to be a college-educated barista or bartender.

“Thanks to the economic crisis, bartending got upgraded from a job to a career.” – @GSElevator

As has clearly been stated and supported statistically, a technical degree is likely to be more financially valuable than a liberal arts degree – both today, and in all likelihood, ten years from now.  Some of the fastest growing job categories are currently in middle-skill positions that do not require a four-year education.  Plumber, nurse, electrician, real estate broker, air-traffic controller – the list goes on and on…

Study for four years, rack up tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and then struggle to find meaningful employment… Or very quickly become an electrician, nurse, or plumber.  Can you say opportunity cost?  The 2012 median pay for plumbers was almost $49,000, while the median pay for all occupations was slightly more than $33,000.  Moreover, the top 10% of plumbers earn more than $79,000, and the job segment is projected to grow 26% through 2020, with new construction and a wave of baby boomer retirements among older plumbers spurring employment.

Shouldn’t we be telling our average students to start a career as a plumber, and aim to one day own a fleet of plumbing trucks?

We can expect that, over time, market forces will solve the problem.  But in the meantime, people need to wake up.  This naïve, elitist  “college for all” dream is the simply the wrong mantra.  Its wrong for the individuals chasing this dream, and it’s wrong for America.  We need to be talking about “appropriate skills for all” instead.


[i] Richard Vedder, Christopher Denhart, and Jonathan Robe, Why Are Recent College Graduates Underemployed? University and Labor-Market Realities (Center for College Affordability and Productivity, 2013) pp. 8

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57 Responses to Meet Jack The Plumber/ Philosopher

  1. Kevin says:

    You’re right, but I’ve got a feeling that nobody who follows your twitter would seriously consider skipping college. Maybe 80% of Americans consider themselves above average, but 100% of GSelevator’s followers think they belong in Mensa

    • Nick says:

      Do you belong in mensa?

      • Andrew says:

        I’m in Mensa, so using my sample size of 1, so far so good on his stat.

        I think maybe “college opportunity for all” rather than “college for all” makes more sense, the appropriate skill for all this seems a bit class society ish.

      • Jacob says:

        Mensa is for those who want that extra bit of attention that life never gave them. It’s that mental gold star club (that they pay for) they want to be in for being ‘smart’ but not necessarily successful.

  2. People who take out college loans owe $26k, on average. Pretty cheap for a 4-year degree if you must borrow.

  3. A says:

    The only thing that bothered me about Jack Hopes’ view is that he’s looking for experienced workers. All employers want experienced workers but none of them are willing to give the rookies a chance by teaching and mentoring them.

    • Jack Hope says:

      We have 4 employees in plumbing school right now. They were not in school before they started working here. We are paying for their schooling.

      While experience is great, we hire non-skilled employees who we think will fit well at Hope Plumbing and then we give them the skills they need to succeed.

      -Jack Hope

      • A says:

        If that’s the case then I take it back and wish you and your workers all the best. May other employers follow in your footsteps.

  4. Peter says:

    I’ve been preaching this for years. I took my 4 year enlistment from the military as an aircraft technician, and now I’m doing the exact same job for Gulfstream at their Service Center making a comfortable living with plenty of room for growth. I’m using my GI Bill money to pay for school and even if it runs out, Gulfstream gives tuition reimbursement as long as the degree is in a business or engineering related field. It’s nice not having student loans to worry about.

    Also, check out Mike Rowe’s speech to the Senate Commerce Committee from a few years ago.

    • Rob says:

      I really hope you realize that joining the military to pay for college is not a viable option for EVERYONE that is looking to receive an education. That service still has to be paid for by the tax payers, much like the actual financing of a college degree. And gearing up the military industrial complex also has unintended consequences. Thank you for posting a response that justifies an unsustainable solution to a problem that is suppose to be adequately addressing a problem of sustainability. You’re part of the problem, Mr. Microcosm of America.

  5. gavin says:

    I think people should just do what interests them, that would solve numerous problems.

    • StupidGuy says:

      Well, I’m interested in having sex with different 19 year old girls while sniffing cocaine in a beach town. And I’m sure that there are a lot of others who have similar aspirations. Doesn’t seem like its solving any kind of problems though.

  6. luke says:

    Great article.
    I have a college degree myself (no regrets). But, seeing what my wife pays for a haircut, I always said that our daughter should become hairdresser. If she fails, she can still get a college degree.

    • AByrd says:

      My very well read, but not well educated, hair dresser says the best decision he ever made was not going to college. He is brighter and more interesting than most of our junior staff, who all have college or post-graduate educations. And god knows he makes more an hour than they do – and he has since he was 20.

  7. Tubesteak says:

    In Australia skilled tradespeople earn as much as lawyers and accountants. Doctors and bankers still earn more than them but someone that left school at 16 and became a diesel mechanic can earn the same as someone who has professional qualifications. The added advantage is the tradesman will be 10 years ahead of the professional. In other words, the tradesman will be earning at 25 what the professional will be earning at 35.

    College is only useful if it is going to get you the qualifications necessary to enter some kind of profession: http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-question-youre-not-asking-should-you-go-to-college/

    Otherwise you’ll be no better off than someone that didn’t go to college.

    The added advantage is trades skills can’t see their jobs shipped to India or China because they have to be physically located where the work is.

  8. Ruslan says:

    Great post. I agree almost entirely with the author, Hope and several of the comments. Tubesteak makes a solid, perhaps underlooked, point about it simply not being possible to outsource most skilled labor jobs.

    The other side of the “most” I’m referring to is, at least partially, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Specifically I’m looking at software engineering/programming jobs. There has been a lot of debate about whether a storage of whether there exists a global STEM workers. Interning at a high-tech company this summer, I’m firmly convicted that there are a plethora of very high paying and comfortable jobs for skilled programmers, data scientists, etc. That skill can come from a formal education, but rarely has to. Imagine your dad teaching you the plumbing trade as you’re growing up. Now replace your dad with the, for all practical purposes, infinite knowledge constantly available via the Internet. You have a free, and at least in some developed countries, universally available private tutoring system at your disposal.

    In short, I find it relevant to consider this new type of skilled labor. In many ways it’s the same, but particularly in terms of outsourcing and remote work is vastly different. I’d be curious to hear what GSElevator and others have to say about training for a role in software engineering instead of hitting a formal university.

    • .net dev says:

      I can confirm that it is not necessary to have a college education to be a software developer/engineer. I work for a prominent insurance and financial company as a senior level software engineer. I quit school after tuition rates skyrocketed in 2008. Taught myself .net and now I realize that my skills are in huge demand and could easily find work without a degree and still manage at least 6 figures.

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  10. Stroker Ace says:

    GSE has negotiated with terrorists by toning back his tweets and getting married. What a pussy.

  11. stevespiros says:

    The world needs ditch diggers too

  12. Paul says:

    I’m currently a student at a liberal arts institution and very much agree with the general message this article is promoting. I think this “need” to go to college stems from our generations (and perhaps the lasts as well) individual and idealistic view of life. We all want to follow our dreams and make a lot of money and plumber just doesn’t usually come to mind when considering this goal. But ironically, I think being a plumber is probably more rewarding and fun than a lot of desk jobs (that may lead to “dream jobs”) that pay comparably or even less. So I believe what the man said to be true, for some college is great yet it shouldn’t be and isn’t for everyone- there are other options.

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  14. Chris says:

    Something to consider: white collar work can generally be performed until you keel over, are put out to pasture when you can no longer adapt, or maybe, retire on your own free will. Trades, unless you break into management/own the company, have a finite physical life for most people. I have family that spent decades in the trade, didn’t save enough to retire, but are no longer physically able to work. “Just keep working” isn’t an option for them. Their fault for poor financial planning, sure, but it is a valid concern. Break your leg as a lawyer and you sit down for 2 months, break your leg as an HVAC tech and I hope you had Aflac. Not to say we should discourage young people from entering them, but it is a markedly different lifestyle with unique considerations and risks.

    • davey308 says:

      Agreed, I have managed many of these skilled trades, and once they reach the 20 year mark most can barely function due to a bad back, arthritis, nagging knees etc. due to aging or previous on the job injuries.

  15. Cozmo Kramer says:

    I grew up in a blue collar family. However, I was fortunate enough to attend a private hs and private university on scholarship. There’s definitely an underlying sense of elitism and thumbing noses at tradesmen. I know I would suck at that type of job, same as being a barista, bartender, nurse, etc. The only thing that bothers me is that sense that if you grow up without the means to go to college, you should just take up a skill. I didn’t go to college for the hell of it, I had a plan, and believe me, that sense of elitism really drove me to work my ass off.

  16. Jimmy says:

    Seeking a liberal arts degree should be motivated by the education itself. Any other degree IS a trade. And that’s not to bash the LA degree…. The most valuable person in an organization is the hardest working critical thinker.

  17. Go to college, don’t be an idiot.

    • Jack Hope says:

      Did you read the article? Are you suggesting that anyone who does not attend college is an idiot?

      • I think it’s pretty clear he meant that for people who have the choice/ability/talent to go to college, listening to this article and skipping college for trade school would be pretty silly. It’s what I did. I’m now working full time and going to night school for an engineering degree. I don’t qualify for financial aid, because I have some cash saved up in a 401K and because of that I’m “too rich” to get assistance. I wish I had gone to college and finished my degree when I was still getting financial support from my parents. But I was young and dumb, and listened to articles like this one.

        At the end you wrote, “From this, one might conclude that a college degree is necessary now more than ever, just to compete for jobs that traditionally would not require a college degree. This logic is fine if you want to be a college-educated barista or bartender.” That logic is fine for anyone dealing with the realities of the job market today. The unemployment rate for lower income jobs is about double the total unemployment rate. If you don’t have any better options lined up, then your choices might be between college-educated barista, bartender, drywall hanger, painter (or any number of other trades you can learn in a few days) and being homeless.

        Go to college. Don’t be an idiot.

  18. Bob Woodley says:

    Shouldn’t you post a link to the original editorial?

  19. Scott Mason says:

    This is really the old Harvard plumber meme. Which doesn’t literally mean you go to Harvard then become an actual mechanic, it means you start a plumbing business like Jack Hope above, put a bunch of trucks out on the street at $1000 per day.

  20. Rob says:

    Experience is way more important than education. I have a double major in Nuclear and Radiological Engineering but am basically a financial analyst now. Zero opportunities really for graduates without tangible work experience anymore. “It’s not what you know it’s who you know”

  21. NotPlumber says:

    - Job satisfaction matters a lot. To each its own, but somehow solving “white collar” problems seems more exciting. There is limited number of ways to fix a leaking pipe. Might get boring after a while.
    – There is no need to wreck up tens of thousands in college debt. Pick a state/city school instead. Are you paying for a prestige or knowledge?
    – Job opportunities are cyclical and many influencing factors are hard to predict.

    That being said, no, not everybody *has* to go to college. An equal opportunity to attend would be nice though.

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  23. Charlotte says:

    It used to be a trade to cut wheat with a scythe. Now we have combines. Car transmission used to break constantly, now, due to better tech they won’t need to be replaced for the life of the car. Thats a lot of skilled tradesmen out of business. I maybe in the minority of women who actually knows how to change my car’s oil but for less than $50 for someone else to do it, why bother. Like anyone else who knows how to change a cars oil, I know that its a job which any second could be done more easily and efficiently by a machine, it’s just a matter of time.

    As toilets become more durable, there will be a lot fewer plumbers out there who will be making lot more money (at least thats what my apparently worthless econ degree tells me).

    • CRE says:

      Yeah good luck with the machine that changes oil. As if a machine can be designed that could remove the oil filter from every different model of car. The bolt from the oil pan maybe but a human arm is always going to be required to reach up into to guts of the car and unscrew the oil filter.

      Toilets aren’t becoming more durable either…the toilet design hasn’t changed in decades. For you to assume that all plumbers do is work on are toilets is pretty ignorant and shows how very little you know about the trade. Just because that is the only reason you have ever had to call a plumber does not mean that is all their work is limited to. Hydronic heating systems, gas lines, boilers, in floor heating, etc are all part of the plumbing trade. Any idiot can set a toilet. You don’t need to be a licensed plumber to do that.

  24. Borp says:

    So, I’m from Germany. Not only are we known for starting a bunch of wars, but also for some high-tech stuff. No, I’m not just talking cars, I’m talking the machines that the Chinese buy in order to produce your iPhone.
    Recently, I’ve been talking to American and British machinery produc(ing company own)ers. And they told me, how hard it is to find people with any skill at all to be motivated to work in a shop.
    Down here, we got an educational system that allows you to earn a trade skill (plumbing, nursing, but also tending horses, advertising, graphics design or market research – around 300 different professions) earning a very small wage while going to school. By the way, in this school – as opposed to college – you learn how to do your taxes, what the labour laws help you with and what you need to think of when starting your own business.
    Most importantly, though, our work force over here is mostly made up of people with a learned trade skill. And if you know your stuff – and be that folding metal – you get respect from society.
    Now I’ve been to university (luckily, that’s free over here), and I’ve been there, thinking that this is the only way to start a career. Well, I’m not much of sit-down-and-learn, I’m better at get-up-and-do. So today, I’m a market researcher (yeah, not really a trade skill, I know), and after just three years of earning little money (as opposed to 4 years of piling up debt), I now make $50k a year. You do the math, but you don’t need an economics degree for that.
    So, if you know what you want to learn and you like the learning – go ahead, college is your place. But if you don’t know what you want to learn and/or do – why put yourself in debt for it? Find a Jack Hope, help him earn his bucks, learn a skill. You can skill go to university after that. And by the way: You are then old enough to truly enjoy it.

    And to the people working in a job they are overqualified for… read David Graeber’s funny article http://www.strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/ “on the rise of bullshit jobs.

  25. Keith Lee says:

    I agree that there are not enough young people willing to get their hands dirty. Plumbing is a very rewarding trade if done properly. I’ve been in the plumbing industry for over 10 years now and it has provided my family and I a very stable financial life. I hope to pass this down to my 2 sons, and hopefully to their children. http://www.georgiaplumbingexperts.com

  26. Adam says:

    I say get a college education, then become a plumber! Have the best of both worlds. The trouble with this article is he only puts monetary value on education. Asking how much more money you can make with an education misses the big picture. If we ONLY measure everything in life by the financial return on investment, we become nothing but a bunch of single minded greed machines.

    Take the argument further… Why have kids…. money loser! Why take a vacation….. money loser! Why give to charity….. money loser! Why get an education….. WTF!

    If you want a chance at the 30% of jobs that require an education, you damn well better have that degree! We should not look down on people that don’t go to college, but we should not suggest you should just give up and not bother because you’ll never get that job anyway!

  27. R says:

    There are a lot of decent jobs out there for non-degree holders. What you said about “college for all dream” vs “appropriate skills for all” is true. It’s the skills that count and you can have that even with degree or not.

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  41. Bill Baldwin says:

    I attended Law School during a recession, working three jobs to stay afloat. When people asked what I did, I would invariably say “I am a plumber.” The reply was always “they make really good money.” That was in the 70’s, nothing has changed.
    Still, I wouldn’t be happy with any job paying less than $250K at this point, so I’m in the better off educated category. And yes, I can fix stuff.

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