The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Teens Dump Higher Ed for Brown Jobs

This week the New York Times highlighted some excellent news for teens looking to earn a middle class life without going to college. Thanks to the booming oil and gas industry, high school seniors now have well paying career options in the Brown industry:

 For most high school seniors, a college degree is the surest path to a decent job and a stable future. But here in oil country, some teenagers are choosing the oil fields over universities, forgoing higher education for jobs with salaries that can start at $50,000 a year.

It 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. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.

Some outlets have already picked up on this story. Heather McDonald at NRO hails it as a challenge to the “college-industrial complex.” But this story is less about the decline of higher ed, then it is about the oil and gas industry and the future of the middle class. Higher ed will, as the Montana case shows, survive:

The shift appears to be localized around centers of oil production like Sidney. School counselors in western Montana, far from the boom, said that few of their students were abandoning college for energy jobs. And even here, a majority of graduates are still choosing universities and community colleges.

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.

Published on December 28, 2012 2:01 pm