Education: A Thought for the Day

One big revelation from the COVID crisis is its effect on our education system in America. The main reason why college is recommended and expected by parents and schools is to find employment as an adult. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

As a personal example, I went into the Army directly out of high school to pre-pay for my education and to also see the world. It was kind of my gap year(s), but I worked my butt off for that money. It also gave me other opportunities throughout life and shaped who I am today. I’m convinced I would have been a totally different person today without the military. I wouldn’t have it any other way for my life course.

My goal out of high school was to become a physical therapist. I’ve always been interested in health and athletics, so it made sense to help these athletes heal and reach their goals. Well, first of all, my grades were OK in high school, but not good enough to make it into a PT program. I realized this after my first semester of college. I decided to transfer to a local community college to get my basic education out of the way and to make high enough marks to get into PT school. Yes, I did improve my grades, but my goals had changed.

I had interned as a student in the PT ward of a hospital. I had the fun duty of taking the laundry and other yucky stuff to where it needed to go. There was one room with critical patients who were in traction with extreme back pain, hip or shoulder replacements, and other serious issues. It was kind of dark and unpleasant. In addition, when I got to help a PT with a patient, it was never an athlete. It wasn’t someone who wanted to improve their back squat or 100 m dash time. It was an 70 year old lady who had carpel tunnel surgery. The PT used a goniometer to measure range of motion. So after treatment and with tears in her eyes and her gripping tightly to my hand, the PT would say "we need to get a few more degrees of motion today". It was painful to watch. Yes, I still would have become a PT, but it was different from what I had first thought.

So as I went for my Bachelor’s degree, I found myself attracted to the courses at the cellular and molecular level. This led to my degree in Microbiology with a minor in Biochemistry. I was fascinated by microorganisms. I love studying physiology and deeper aspects. So when it came time to graduate, I started interviewing with companies. One was a filtration company who made microfilters and other medical devices. These companies wanted practical experience, like studies in hematology, and specific skills of phlebotomy and other technical aspects. I was largely unqualified due to lack to hands-on abilities. I was over-qualified because of the courses I took.

So what does any highly educated person do? Get more education. My trade-off for not finding a job right away was to go to Grad School. One of my courses that I loved was Mycology, the study of fungi. I took more courses with the mycologist and ended up doing my graduate studies with him. I also took more courses in microbiology, field ecology, virology, and statistics. After all of that, I knew there was no way I was going to get employed with that education. Haha!

So the next step? Ph.D. studies. I wasn’t smart enough to get into PT school but definitely smart enough for advanced studies. I studied plant pathology. Now that definitely had application to real life. I had worked at the plant disease clinic helping people solve problems with lawns, trees, bushes, and field crops. But, outside of the clinic, it wasn’t an employable degree. I actually studied disease resistance in field corn, which included a lot of genetics and breeding techniques. Once again, when I tried to find jobs with corn breeders, I was under-qualified to do that specifically. And there weren’t jobs as a pathologist other than the few with the USDA labs.

So what does a highly educated person do? They teach. So I became an Assistant Professor. And, after years of begging for money and making far out claims of what I could do for people, I used my military background to reach out to the Corps of Engineers. It has been a good place to work, but not without issues of politics and bureaucracy. The truth is, I still beg for money. And some of my work gets tossed into a trash heap, just like some of my University work. But a good amount of my work goes toward improving the lives of every day people. And it helps with our National Security.

The truth is, I would say at least half the people I know where I work and the people who work out in the real world; most don’t work in the field they were educated in. I know a lot of college graduates who work in sales, retail, insurance, and various trades. The work I do right now has nothing to do with my specific fields of study. But its the analytical tools and abilities to do research that makes the difference. Does that mean I am a better researcher than my colleagues who have a B.S./B.A. or Associates Degree? Not at all. The Ph.D. just gives me a little extra street cred. Even if you look at the highest levels of leadership in my organization, there isn’t always a Dr. in front of their name. I would say the Dr. only gives you a little extra boost, but not by much.

The statistics show that college graduates make more money than people who don’t have a college degree. But in all my studies in statistics, I know the data is often skewed. I don’t think you can look at an Annual Salary as a true indicator of wealth. You have to look at the cumulative effect of an education. I spent a couple years in the Army before school. Then I spent 12 years in schooling. Yes, I made some money for college in the Army, but I also didn’t pay into social security or a pension plan. The same is true as a student. I did work part-time jobs which helped, but its nothing like a bigger annual salary of full-time employment. I was way better off than most because nearly all of my education was paid for. But most people go into huge debt to go to school. Even worse are professional degrees like M.D. or J.D. (law school). Paying for those degrees is like paying for a mortgage on a house.

A short story: When I was in my undergrad, my church had a young couples group. We’d have get togethers at each other’s homes. Most of us were still in college, so we had apartments or small homes. But one of the couples had a total McMansion. I mean, when we met in their basement, it had these gaudy Greek columns and mirrors and a full bar area. This guy didn’t go to college. He worked in his Dad’s business as a kid, then full-time after high school. He ended taking over the business. I had friends who were electricians and plumbers who started work one or two years out of vocational school. They had families and homes and country club memberships. Whereas, I didn’t start making real money for about 15 years out of high school. That was 15 years of very little employment other than the military.

Would I do that all over again the same way? Probably, because I would never have predicted. In fact, I think it would have been better to stay in the military for a 20 year career. I finished college at age 32. I could have retired from the Army at 38. I mean "RETIRED!!" Wow! And I could have come out of the Army with a degree too, which many do. I gained so many skills with the military. I think of how much money I save by knowing how to repair cars, fix mechanical things, and build stuff. Its a super huge cost savings in life. And I would have had a ton of respect finishing a full military career. I was an E-7 when I left the Army. You only go up to E-9. So I could have made a lot with my career.

For most people, college is a crutch. Its something you do because you don’t want to be an adult yet. When I went to college, kids were acting so stupid. It was like high school again. Whereas I had lived in Germany and was responsible for lots of expensive equipment. I had a much better head on my shoulders than the students around me. In the news, they call an 18 year old who dies in a car wreck a child, a teenager, a kid. But an 18 year soldier who dies in combat is called a man or woman. It is a totally different distinction. Some people never finish being kids. They live in their parent’s basement to age 32. They never take on responsibility or push themselves to make more of their lives. That doesn’t mean college. It means seeking a trade or experience that makes money.

I know some young people who even decry money. They are totally disillusioned by society. They call it greed or selfishness. But I’d like to talk with them when they are 60 years old. They will sorely realize the error of their ways. They will be the sad stories of people living on the street, no retirement income, no pension, nothing. They may be ill of health and not have a way to pay for treatment. At 60 is when you’ll know that you should have done something different in life. But then, there is not a whole lot that you can do about it.

We sow seeds early in life. Some of us don’t sow at all. We travel all over the world and live in constant debt. We always rent or lease and never own anything. There is no equity in our lives. We don’t have an investment in ourselves. We just gave into every pleasure and called it Woke. When in reality is was just a dream. A dream that floats away with the wind. And when your Woke eyes open, you realize you have nothing. When a crisis, a pandemic, or whatever comes your way, you become dependent on everybody else and have nothing socked away for a rainy day. That’s not Woke. That’s just plain not smart.

Education comes in many ways. The best way is to jump into the fire and learn the hard way. Its sink or swim. But there are smart ways too. Learn a trade. Be a commodity. Be someone that people need in life. Don’t be optional. Don’t be non-essential. Be essential in life. To be honest, where I sit for my home office looks out a front room window. With very little traffic because nobody goes to work, one thing keeps ticking. Those trash trucks. The different companies pass by and you can hear their distinct sounds. A trashman always works. Rain, sun, snow, or hail, they are out there hustling their butts off. Many make good money. We always need the trashman. A funny side note on that: why aren’t there trash women? What happened to equality? I’m sure the trash companies would take women. But why aren’t women signing up to be trash men? There’s a story in there somewhere. There are always jobs to be had. When I was a janitor in high school, I could have done that the rest of my life. I would have always been wanted. I could have worked as many or little hours as I wanted.

Be essential.

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