Thursday, November 12, 2015

Is Marco Rubio Right About Welders and Philosophers?

In the Republican candidates’ debate on the evening of November 10, Senator Marco Rubio argued for the importance of vocational education by stating that “welders earn more than philosophers” and that “we need more welders and less philosophers.” Was he correct?

Let’s consider earnings first. If a philosopher is someone who studies philosophical issues for a living, then the occupation under consideration is mostly pursued by the faculty of colleges and universities. Earnings figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are available for Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary: The estimate for May of 2014 was a median annual wage of $65,540. If you assume that this average is being pulled up by the religion teachers (which I doubt), you could suggest a somewhat lower figure for the philosophy teachers alone and still have a figure that considerably exceeds the annual earnings of Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers: $36,720.

Some fact-checkers have approached the issue from the understanding that Senator Rubio was speaking about alternative postsecondary options for study, and therefore “philosophers” should be construed to mean people who majored in philosophy, not people working in that field. Using this approach, I could compare the starting wages of philosophy majors ($39,900, as reported by The Wall Street Journal) with the starting wages of welders: probably roughly equivalent to the lowest 10 percent of wage-earners among Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers, which is $24,990, according to the BLS. Or I could look at the mid-career earnings of the philosophy majors—$81,200, according to the WSJ survey—a figure that exceeds even the 90th percentile earnings of Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers: $57,120. Among both new workers and mid-career earners, the philosophy majors get bigger paychecks.

Note, however, that these are apples-to-oranges comparisons. If I am truly comparing the outcomes of postsecondary programs, I should be comparing the wages of the philosophy grads to the wages of those who graduated from welding programs. Some of the latter are no longer working as welders and have moved on to more lucrative careers such as Construction Managers (with a median of $84,410). The WSJ survey and others of its ilk do not cover welding grads, so a precise comparison is not possible. And those with no formal training beyond welding probably have few opportunities for advancement to high-paying managerial careers. Thus it seems likely that philosophy is the postsecondary program with the bigger payoff.

Now let’s look at the senator’s second assertion: “We need more welders and [fewer] philosophers.”  It’s important to parse this assertion carefully. Did the senator mean we need fewer philosophers than welders? Or did he mean fewer philosophers than we have now?

If he meant the latter, he has raised an issue that is philosophical in its own right. A friend of mine who has a PhD in philosophy reminded me of a quotation from John W. Gardner, once president of the Carnegie Corporation: “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.”

But let’s assume that the senator meant that there is a greater need for welders than for philosophers. That meaning follows logically from his earlier statement about earnings because getting a paycheck depends on being employed. What are the comparative job prospects for philosophers and welders?

In fact, only about 23,000 people were working as Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary, in May 2014. Compare this to more than 350,000 working as Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers. The BLS projects 10,600 job openings for the former occupation between 2012 and 2022, and remember that some of these will be for religion teachers. By contrast, the BLS projects 108,500 job openings for the welders over the same time span. This comparison validates this interpretation of Senator Rubio’s second assertion: We have a greater need for welders.

In the discussion of comparative earnings, I also looked at the figures for philosophy and welding graduates. But for a comparison of employment prospects, hard data simply is not available. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many philosophy grads are working in business, law, clergy, and other fields, although often with additional degrees. Therefore, I would not discourage bright students with the ability to be flexible about their career outcomes from opting for a major in philosophy.

Senator Rubio, however, was talking about government policy rather than the career choices of individuals, and the specific point he was making is that vocational education suffers from a lack of prestige. I agree with him that this is harmful to the future of our economy, and the quotation from John Gardner is quite relevant to this issue. There are already reports of manufacturers who are having trouble finding skilled workers, and the blame is often placed on a widespread disrespect for occupations in the skilled trades.

Perhaps I have parsed Senator Rubio’s words more carefully than is appropriate. Politics, after all, deals with philosophical issues much as a meat cleaver deals with meat. I agree with the senator’s main point, even if it was expressed inelegantly.