On January 7, 2015, the Wall Street Journal ran a story highlighting Justin Friend, a 24-year-old welder in Texas. The below is written by Meredith Gunn of the Mississippi Energy Institute.

Could the key to spurring development in industrial America and increasing household incomes be as simple as rewriting the dialogue about technical careers?

Justin Friend and I have a lot in common. He’s 24, I’m 25. His parents graduated from college and went on to become college professors; mine graduated from college and are an attorney and an entrepreneur. He’s interested in engines and how things work, and I’m handy in the sense that I enjoy a good pint of Ben & Jerry’s while watching MythBusters (it’s practically the same).

A few differences, though: Justin knew from an early age that he wanted to work with his hands, whilst I always had my nose in a book. Justin decided in junior high to take welder training courses, and put that early education to use mending fences for his neighbors. The most money I ever got out of my neighbors was from a poorly-constructed lemonade stand shut down within the first hour of that scorching July afternoon. Justin knew that a two-year training program at Texas State Technical College was the golden ticket to his dream job. I settled on a major sometime around second semester of my sophomore year at a four-year, private institution, and then went to grad school. Justin makes over $140,000/year at his job, and I… don’t.

Let’s make this clear: I love my alma maters and my advanced degree. I’m in a field that plays to my strengths and where I can grow. The problem is, I can’t say for certain that everyone around me feels the same way because we didn’t talk about it. When I came through—six long years ago—there was one road to the American Dream, and it usually led through a liberal arts college and sported a fancy price tag.

So how did Justin have it all figured out? Perhaps, it was the conversations he had. His parents recognized his struggles in the classroom and his knack for mechanics. They, along with his educators, encouraged him to try careers in line with his strengths while he was still young so that by the time college came, he had a better idea of what he wanted to do—and he’d already made money doing it.

Could the key to spurring American innovation and increasing our overall standard of living be as simple as rewriting the dialogue about technical careers? If we created an environment that encouraged more career exploration in middle school—when the stakes are low—would we see an increased percentage of high school graduates? If we removed the stigma of “dirty jobs” from those who are fortunate enough to work in jeans, would we see increased enrollment in training programs for these well-paying careers?

The data suggests that we would. To quote the article about Justin, “nearly a third of people aged 22 through 25 with a Bachelor of Arts degree either don’t have a job or are working at one that doesn’t require a university degree.” In comparison, the Texas State Technical College, for example, has seen a 70% increase in enrollment from just three years ago, and “most of its welding students secure jobs before they graduate.” Jobs do not ensure financial freedom, as my newly-graduated peers will quickly tell you. US student loan debt is up to $1.13 trillion as of September 30, 2014. Meanwhile, Justin has relatively no student loan debt, minimal expenses, and a brand new $53,000 Ford F-250. My 12-year-old Honda is crying with embarrassment.

Bottom line: everyone has different strengths. I’m certainly not suggesting we minimize four-year degrees or positions for college grads (Dear Lord, please don’t! This girl has to eat). What I am saying is that a different dialogue would likely increase early recognition and encouragement of everyone’s strengths—especially those that pay 2-3 times what the rest of the private sector is making. Let’s change the conversation from college-only to college-optional, and see if that doesn’t motivate our next generation of well-paid professionals. Mississippi’s economic future may just depend on it.

Unemployment Rate Among College Graduates Under 25

Unemployment Rate Among College Graduates Under 25

Class of 2014
Average debt per borrower in each year’s graduating class.

Class of 2014 Average debt per borrower in each year's graduating class.