Welders and philosophy majors unite!

Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at his blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

David Perry: Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are wrong; philosophy majors make more money than welders

We need an America where both white-collar and blue-collar workers can prosper and earn decent wages

CNN  — 

In the GOP presidential debate, Marco Rubio responded to a question about work, wages and college tuition by attacking philosophy majors. He said:

“Here’s the best way to raise wages. Make America the best place in the world to start a business or expand an existing business, tax reform and regulatory reform, bring our debt under control, fully utilize our energy resources so we can reinvigorate manufacturing, repeal and replace Obamacare, and make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training. For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

Rubio is hardly the first GOP candidate to snipe at liberal arts degrees. Just a few days ago, Jeb Bush made a similar quip, saying, “Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working [at] a Chick-fil-A.”

David M. Perry

Both Rubio and Bush are wrong. Philosophy majors generally make a lot more money than welders. As many in the media remarked, philosophy majors generally make a lot more money than welders. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over time, philosophy majors (not just that tiny sliver who become professors) average around $80,000 a year, about twice what welders average.

But this isn’t just about how awesome a philosophy major is. The data on wages and education reveal two things. First, college degrees are a good investment, though we’ve got to address the high cost of tuition and the student debt crisis. Second, welders, and all skilled blue-collar workers, need a raise.

Philosophy is not unique in propelling its majors to financial success. Like my own degree in history, philosophy gives students a key set of analytical and expressive skills that are mandatory for nearly every high-paying career. College graduates do better in the job market not only because some acquire useful skills, but also because employers want employees with the ability to think critically and to adapt to the jobs of tomorrow.

The evidence of the financial impact of a college degree is strong. In 2014, people with bachelor’s degree earned around $1,100 a week, while those with associate’s degree earned $762, compared to $668 for a high school diploma. The gap is widening for young people.

There are, of course, many complexities to these numbers, such as whether low-achieving high school students should invest in college and take on debt, but the overall pattern is clear. These numbers are why we must continue to fight to make college affordable, accessible and high quality for everyone. That means no shortcuts like cheap online programs, over-reliance on temporary adjunct professors, and unethical for-profit colleges.

But the crux of these discussions isn’t just about the earning potential of liberal arts majors.

Welders, and all people who work in blue-collar industries, are too often underpaid. It’s easy for white-collar pundits and former political science majors (a heavily philosophical discipline) like Marco Rubio to forget. I’m reminded of Joe the Plumber from the 2008 campaign, a man who was famously neither named Joe nor working as a plumber. He told then-candidate Barack Obama that as a plumber he soon expected to earn over $250,000 a year, therefore Obama’s tax plan would hurt him, and by extension good American small business owners everywhere.

It’s true that some owners of plumbing businesses make lots of money. I’m sure owners of construction and welding companies make lots of money. Many welders surely make excellent livings, as Rick Santorum claimed in the junior debate. Overall, though, welders make less than philosophy majors because wages for even highly skilled blue-collar workers remain stagnant.

The best way to help the large swath of American middle class – both white-collar workers and blue-collar workers – is to focus on a new labor movement and revitalize unions.

A study from the Economic Policy Institute shows a strong correlation between a decline in unions and rise in income inequality.

The AFL-CIO has shown that nonunionized construction workers make around $20,000 less a year than their unionized counterparts. The welders at the American Welding Society message board all testify to the job security and generally higher pay of union jobs.

Jody Collier, author of weldingtipsandtricks.com, says, “If you are going to weld pipe for a living, be aware of this plain fact. Union pipe welders often make more money than nonunion pipe welders. Never mind all the philosophical arguments about the merits of union vs. nonunion. That’s for another day. You don’t have to know all the details to know that more money is a good thing.”

Unfortunately, union membership is falling, and too many people don’t seem to care. We see that in the reaction to Rubio’s welding vs. philosophy gaffe. We spend too much time defending philosophy majors and not enough energy promoting living wages for skilled trades.

I believe in an America where those who want to study philosophy can do it with the knowledge that they will be prepared to compete for good jobs as they move forward. I believe in an America where people interested in trades can, likewise, find good work that pays living wages.

It’s time for a new labor movement that unites college students with underpaid skilled labor. Blue-collar and white-collar, college-educated and skilled labor, should stand united, shoulder-to-shoulder. We’re all in this together.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.
Read CNNOpinion’s Flipboard magazine.