Starting Your Career

What Can I Do If I'm Not College Material?

Richard Stockton
Sr. Writer

Posted 08/09/2019

There's a general idea that not going to college is something dumb people do, or that you're somehow letting everybody down if you don't invest the years between ages 18 and 22 into learning how to summarize Proust at a university. This meme is so strong, it's convinced millions of American teenagers to take out crazy debt and get so overqualified they basically can't find a job as adults. That doesn't have to be you. There is another way. In fact, there are several other ways. Here are three of the best:

Trade School
Back in the day, trade school was where you went if you were a discipline case in high school. You'd learn some very basic skills and probably wind up working at a tire shop. Those days are WAY over, and today trade school is an amazing option for lots of young adults.

Today's technical economy needs boatloads of people with vocational certificates — not four-year degrees — in computer programming, nursing, welding/metalworking and lots of other skilled trades. You can find loads of vocational programs in the catalog at your local community college, usually grouped together as a single program for whatever specialty you're interested in. The usual result is a certificate of completion that qualifies you for entry-level work in the field, followed by further training as you advance. Private schools operate even more specialized programs, which can end with a $70,000+ job in nursing or another skilled trade when you're done.

In a lot of ways, apprenticeships are better than classroom training. If you're better at learning by doing, then finding an apprentice program with a skilled master or journeyman worker can be for you. It can be even more for you if the apprenticeship pays a salary, which a lot of them do nowadays. Apprenticing used to be how kids learned to be blacksmiths, silversmiths, merchants and even accountants. These days, it's mostly for certain highly skilled trades like masonry and carpentry and other reasonably high-paying careers.

To get started with this, look for an Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP) in the field you're interested in. Tons of employers are looking for eager young people who want to learn on the job, and they are willing to pay you to earn your certifications. After you're done, you're likely to have a certificate the industry recognizes for work anywhere in the country or for professional licensing as a contractor.

Balance Part-Time School and Work
If you just got a job out of high school, with no particular training or education in the field, you can still go far by balancing work and part-time school. If, for example, your summer job has been working in fast food, there's only so far you can take that . . . at first. Once you've graduated from school and transitioned to full-time employment, you can actually make a career out of that job.
Most businesses that hire teenagers are happy to keep you on as an adult if you keep taking classes on the side to expand your skillset. You don't have to get a degree — often it's enough to take a few classes in accounting or finance, or maybe logistics or even cooking, to advance up the fast-food chain. More than a few industries operate this way, and it's up to you to ask your employer what specific skills you can learn to become a good prospect for management someday.

College isn't for everybody. Even for doctors, lawyers and engineers, there are real drawbacks to the time and expense of all that schooling. You can find out more about your options by browsing through Generation T's open jobs and training list. It updates regularly, so bookmark it and check back often.