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When the Welders Came to Capitol Hill: Not all good jobs do, or should, require a college degree.

May 14, 2017

By: 

Tom Suozzi
Wall Street Journal

I’m sitting in my Capitol Hill office a few weeks ago, meeting with three well-dressed, well-spoken young men who earn salaries in the high five and low six figures. You see the type a lot in Washington, but these guys are different. They’re not lobbyists. They don’t represent Wall Street or any Fortune 500 companies. They’re welders.

America needs more of them and what they represent: good jobs at good wages. Last month I held a roundtable with suppliers in the aeronautic and defense industries, who told me they cannot find enough computer machinists. It sounds like an intimidating job, but according to these companies, trade schools and community colleges teach the specific skills needed.

Census data show that in 2015 there were 105 million full-time jobs in the U.S., about 59 million of which paid less than $50,000 a year. That’s not enough to raise a family and achieve the American dream. Most people who work these jobs responded to President Trump’s message of antiglobalization and “America First.” Many workers without college degrees have played by the rules but still feel left behind. Globalization and technology rendered their stable, good-paying jobs obsolete.

Policy experts, economists and politicians (including me) have pushed college education as the solution. We’ve argued the more you learn, the more you earn. Yet minting more college graduates in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and math—is only half the story. The other half ought to be creating jobs that can be filled by graduates of high schools, trade schools, community colleges and union apprenticeships.

The welders in my office seemed almost sheepish when I asked how they came to the trade. The common theme was that they didn’t do well in school. I’ll tell you what I told them: They’re amazing. At 22, 29 and 32 they are making more than many graduates of college or even law school. They take the work that’s offered, even if it means leaving home at 4:30 a.m. and driving an hour and half. They like their jobs and are good at them.

The policy debates in Washington—over the corporate tax, the income tax, regulatory reform, infrastructure spending—should be centered on creating positions like these. Republicans and Democrats should pledge to work together to create and fill, by 2020, five million new jobs that pay at least $80,000 a year.

Americans don’t need corporate-tax reform simply because companies need more money to buy back stock or increase dividends. They don’t need income-tax “simplification” only because the wealthy want bigger paychecks. They don’t need regulatory reform because workers and consumers have too many protections. And they don’t need a massive infrastructure plan only because America’s roads, bridges, sewers, water lines and mass transit systems are in disrepair.

Americans need these things because they will create jobs at home and rebuild the middle class. My welder buddies are losing faith. So are those computer machinists, and millions more like them. You can meet them at any church, bar or ball field. They have a lot to teach Washington, if only it will listen.

Mr. Suozzi, a Democrat, represents New York’s Third District in the U.S. House.