Is Rubio right that welders earn more than philosophers?

He got a round of applause for this at last night’s debate but it’s a silly claim when you think about it. His point is that there are good livings to be had in vocational training without any of the debt or fascism that come with today’s university experience. True enough, but the cultural bias towards college grads in hiring means that even a lowly philosophy major with a B.A. probably stands a better chance of higher earnings out of school than the average welder does. According to Bloomberg, despite comprising just 34 percent of the total work force, college grads earn 53 percent of the total wages. Analysts both left and right ran the numbers this morning and found that philosophy majors do quite a bit better than welders, even if they don’t go on to become professors of philosophy. (Although those who do become professors do better on average than welders too.) Ethan Epstein at the Weekly Standard writes:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary of a mid-career American welder is $37,000 a year. The median starting salary of a philosophy graduate, meanwhile, is $39,000 a year, according to Payscale. The mid-career median salary of a philosophy graduate, meanwhile, tops $80,000 annually. That’s right: Contrary to Rubio’s assertion, philosophy majors make twice as much as welders. That philosophy majors are poor must come as a shock to philosophy grads Peter Thiel, Carl Icahn, and . . . Carly Fiorina. (I’m hoping Fiorina took the opportunity to educate her opponent on the subject backstage after the debate.)

Think Progress, also citing Payscale, finds that the average salary for someone with a B.A. in philosophy is $97,000 per year while the average for someone with an associate’s degree in welding technology is $58,500. How can that be? How can it be that philosophy majors, whom Rubio wants you to imagine behind the counter at Starbucks pouring lattes because they didn’t choose a more practical major, are raking it in at a higher rate than someone who chose a profession for which there’s reliable demand? Simple: Many philosophy majors end up taking jobs in other professional fields. Some go into business, some go into law, some go into tech, and so forth. A few years ago, when the punching-bag major of choice for critics of college was art history rather than philosophy, Virginia Postrel explained why a degree in the humanities wasn’t necessarily an economic liability:

The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino, California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them…

The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.

Wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that philosophy majors gravitate towards higher-paying white-collar jobs upon graduation, not because of the pay but because they’re drawn to the sort of argumentation and abstract problem-solving that those jobs usually involve. But the pay is what it is, and it’s going to beat the welder’s on average. What could have semi-salvaged this argument for Rubio is if he’d emphasized student loan debt as a counterweight. “Sure,” he could have said, “college grads earn more, but they also owe much more than someone with vocational trading would.” That’s certainly true, but even there, philosophy majors might out-earn welders by enough of a margin to make the debt worthwhile. As of last year, the average college grad left school owing nearly $30,000. That’s a lot, but Epstein’s Payscale numbers show a $40,000 mid-career median gap between philosophers and welders each year. The mean, per Think Progress, is almost as much. That’s a lot of lost income just to avoid some debt.

Exit question via Postrel: What if thousands of high-school students took Rubio’s advice and skipped college to train as welders instead? What would happen to wages in the welding field with a fresh glut of labor?

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