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Make Skilled Trades Great Again

Men are depressed, suicidal, and falling behind women in four-year colleges. Revitalizing trade schools can help.
(Shawn Hill/Shutterstock)

Right now, the Chinese Communist Party is busy promoting a new form of techno-nationalism, with cutting-edge technologies being used to advance nationalist agendas, all in the hope of creating a stronger, more unified national identity. The Chinese have a term, jǔ guó, which basically means “the entire country.” It explains the rise of this techno-nationalism; and it also explains the rise of what I call edu-nationalism.

China is now home to the largest vocational education system in the world. Each yearaccording to China Daily, a mouthpiece of the Chinese regime, vocational schools offer courses in 1,200 professions and train roughly 10 million professionals.

In 2019, the CCP designated 100 billion yuan (roughly $15 billion) to the expansion of the country’s vocational training system, in an attempt to create the next generation of carpenters, plumbers and electricians. China doesn’t import its skilled tradesmen; it creates them.

Moreover, the reform also includes a “1+X” model, which involves an academic certificate plus a vocational skill level certificate. The “1,” we’re assuredmeans a strong foundation of knowledge,” similar to a traditional academic degree. The “X,” meanwhile, represents vocational certificates, equipping students with the skills necessary to overcome various challenges going forward. The entire initiative is part of a broader plan to transform a number of Chinese universities into “Universities of Applied Sciences.”

Meanwhile, how about the U.S.? What is happening in the most powerful country in the world?

Being male is the single largest demographic factor for early death in the United States. As Warren Farrell has noted, before puberty, “the suicide rates among males and females are about equal.” However, between the ages of ten and 14, “boys commit suicide at almost twice the rate of girls.” Things only get worse from there. “Between fifteen and nineteen, boys commit suicide at four times the rate of girls; and between twenty and twenty-four, the rate of male suicide is between five and six times that of females.”

Young men without a college degree are far more likely to take their own lives than young men with a bachelor’s degree. Today, fewer American men are going to college. Meanwhile, 60 percent of college enrollees are female. A gender gap has emerged, and with each year that passes that gap grows wider. Before long, the gap will be a chasm, with more and more men falling into the abyss.

Of course, traditional, four-year degrees are not for everyone. What, if anything, can be done to help young men across the country? Well, let us consider what is occurring in China, and discuss the benefits of pursuing a trade.

Sure, you might think, but won’t artificial intelligence and robotics replace the carpenters, plumbers and electricians, the plasterers and roofers, the tilers and welders? Perhaps someday. But not for a long time. The work carried out by workers in the aforementioned skilled trades rely on the use of fine motor skills, mental flexibility, and dexterity, the very things A.I. is struggling to master. The much discussed A.I. revolution is, in fact, an evolution. And evolution takes time. A very long time. And some futurists believe that the so-called revolution will never arrive.

Now, here in the present, is the time to make skilled trades great again. There’s an opening here for thousands of disaffected and disillusioned young men across the country. In the U.S., there is a severe shortage of electricians; meanwhile, American businesses have been crying out for skilled carpenters for years. The stigma surrounding trades must be eliminated. The success of people like Justin Winn Waller, very much a man who embodies the American dream, must be acknowledged, promoted, and championed. Men (and women, too) who are prepared to get down and dirty and do an honest day’s work can be successful too.

Unlike so many tedious computer jobs, skilled trade professions are intrinsically rewarding. Furthermore, they are attractive. By attractive, I don’t mean physically (although they appear to be). I mean economically. There are, we’re told, far too many economically unattractive men in the U.S. Trades offer a solution, largely because they pay well. Very well. Not only do they provide a great degree of autonomy, they provide a stable source of income.

For those who say money isn’t everything, I say, yes, but it’s not nothing. Good luck pursuing the American dream making $12 an hour. And for those who say money doesn’t buy happiness, again, you’re right. But financial security sets one on the path to happiness. Those with more money tend to be happier than those who don’t have money. Far happier. Physical health is tied to mental health, and both are tied to economic health.

The key to a happy—or to be more accurate, more fulfilling—life relies heavily on two factors: autonomy and financial security. In the U.S., trades provide both. For far too long, a four-year college degree has been viewed as the only option to setting a person on a path to success. But this myopic message is beginning to wear thin. For any young men out there feeling lost and alone, confused and scared, why not consider a trade? It may very well set you, and the United States of America, on the path to a better, freer, more financially secure life.

John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and essayist. His work has been published by the likes of National ReviewNew York PostSouth China Morning Post, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He can be found on Twitter at @ghlionn.