Paul Tough Responds!

Hi Mike,

Thanks for reading the excerpt from my new book published in the Atlantic, and thanks for your post.

MR: Hi Paul. You’re welcome. At over 6,000 words, it is quite possibly the longest thing ever posted on Facebook. Incredibly, over a million people have seen it. Just goes to show, in a TL/DR world, some people still read.

PT: I’d love to send you a copy of the book so that you can get a better sense of its full argument. My book, “The Years That Matter Most,” is about how and why the higher education system in the United States has stopped serving as an engine of social mobility for many young people, especially those who come from families without a lot of money.

MR: Please do. I’d be happy to give it a look.

PT: When I met Orry in 2016 during my reporting for the book, I was interested in his quest to become a welder, and I was puzzled by the fact that legislators in Raleigh were cutting funding to the small-town community college where he and other students were getting the training they needed to pursue that career. Those cuts were increasing his tuition, increasing his debt, and making it harder for him to find the courses he needed to complete his degree.

MR: I think Orry’s story is important, and I’m glad you told it. I’m sure he’s not alone – in his circumstances or his choices – and I’d like to hear Raleigh’s explanation, too. But Orry’s story, and the statistics you provided, didn’t support your claim that “Welding Won’t Make You Rich.” That headline rankled a lot of people on this page, who have heard me push back against the stubborn belief that the trades are a “dead end” job. Those people have become alert to articles that seek to confirm this mistaken belief, and hundreds of them brought your piece to my attention, based only on the headline. Which leads me to a question I should have posed in my original response – did you actually write the headline, or did someone at The Atlantic?

I know that sometimes, (oftentimes, in fact,) newspaper and magazine editors will insist on writing the headlines themselves. The reasons are obvious; catchy, controversial headlines get more eyeballs. Unfortunately, catchy and controversial don’t always mean accurate or truthful. The fact is, welding can absolutely make you rich. Just like acting, or writing, or teaching, or lawyering, or any other profession. Is it common? Of course not. Getting rich is statistically uncommon in any field. Because getting rich has less to do with what you do, and more to do with how you do it. But it’s simply inaccurate to conflate “uncommon” with “impossible.” Had your headline read, “Welding Probably Won’t Make You Rich,” or “Wealthy Welders Go Where the Work Is,” or “Welding Didn’t Work Out for a Some Guy in Hickory,” I’d have had a lot less to say. But you went with a titular claim that was both inaccurate, and dripping with certainty. That invited criticism, and made your underlying argument a lot harder to make.

PT: That question led me to the national statistics on welding salaries. I think you and I agree that 10 percent of welders in the United States earn more than $63,000. And that’s great for them! But 90 percent earn less.

MR: Sure, we can agree on that. Just as we can agree that 95% of welders earn less than the top 5%. But you didn’t choose to make that comparison, because welders in the top 5% are making six-figures a year. And that would have contradicted your headline, as well as your claims that wealthy-welders were “make-believe.” Relying on the 90th percentile was somewhat misleading.

PT: And I don’t think it’s true that the only reason those 90 percent are earning less than $63,000 is that they’re not working hard enough. A lot of welders in that 90 percent are working very hard indeed, and they deserve our support, not our pity or our condemnation.

MR: We agree again! But who exactly is arguing otherwise? Where has a newspaper of record or an elected official in either party ever suggested that welders who earn less than $63,000 don’t work hard? This is where I feel you overreach. Many have said, including me, that if you want to make six figures welding, a willingness to travel is essential. But that’s very different than saying an unwillingness to travel is tantamount to laziness. No one to my knowledge is saying that. We’re simply saying that hard work alone is no guarantee of prosperity. It’s an essential ingredient, but it’s not enough to truly prosper. It never is.

PT: When the Wall Street Journal spreads the message to their mostly affluent readership that it’s easy and common for welders to earn $150,000 or more, it has the effect of making their readers look down on the vast majority of welders who make less than that. I don’t think that’s fair to those welders.

MR: Again, do you really believe that’s happening? Do you think people assume that because Brad Pitt gets $20 million a picture, that actors who earn less don’t work as hard? Do you assume that because James Patterson makes $80 million a year selling books, you will to? From what I can tell, the Journal has simply pointed out that welding and six figure salaries – contrary to widely held misperceptions – are not mutually exclusive. I haven’t seen the Journal, or anyone for that matter, claim that it’s “easy or common” to earn six-figures welding – only that it’s possible. But let me pose the same question to you…

When The Atlantic spreads the message that “Welding Won’t Make You Rich,” and tells their (mostly affluent) readers that stories of wealthy welders were all “made-up” by conservatives for the purpose of keeping kids out of college, what effect do you suppose that might have on the Atlantic’s readers? Seems to me, it would make it less likely for parents to encourage their kids to explore a career in the trades. And that, in my opinion, is a very bad thing.

PT: I think the spread of that attitude among the public has made it politically easier for governments like North Carolina’s to cut spending on community college welding programs in small towns like Hickory.

MR: That’s quite a claim. If you can prove that towns like Hickory have cut public funding specifically because the Journal has convinced Americans that all the welders are getting rich, I’ll eat my words. Hell, if you can do that, I’ll write the forward to your next book.

PT: I believe young people in rural communities should have reliable, inexpensive pathways to jobs in the skilled trades. And I think the public should support those pathways – not just with words but with public dollars. Your private scholarships are great, but there are thousands of young people who want to earn a degree in a trade like welding and aren’t lucky enough to land one of those private scholarships. Those students deserve our support, too. But legislators in Raleigh and many other state capitals aren’t giving those young people the support they deserve; instead, they have turned their backs on them.

MR: I’ll let you slug it out with Raleigh. Good luck! But heads up – here’s a post from the English chair over at CVCC, buried among the thousands our conversation generated. I don’t think she’s pleased…Arlene Spencer Neal wrote, “Mike, I am the chair of the CVCC English Department referenced in the article. We offer English 111 in seated, hybrid, and online formats. The author of the article gave incorrect information regarding this student’s plight. Caring instructors who would have worked one-on-one with Mr. Orry have been available every semester in the department and in the Learning Assistance Center.”

PT: Your comments inspired a lot of your followers to make personal attacks on me, and that’s certainly your right.

MR: Personally, I think their response was inspired by your comments, not mine. But why quibble? If you felt attacked on my page, I’m sorry for that. Just remember, a lot of people here work in the trades, or have family members who do. They’re proud, and they don’t appreciate the way you portrayed their craft. They don’t like the partisan way you framed the argument, and they don’t think Orry is a fair representation of the welding industry. I can’t disagree with them.

PT: But I was struck by how many welders posted in the comments to say, yes, there are a few welders who make six figures – but most don’t!”

MR: Why? We’re you stuck because they contradicted your claim that wealthy-welders were “make-believe,” or were you struck because they confirmed the obvious fact that most people in all professions earn markedly less than those at the top? You’re working from what I believe to be a flawed assumption that says society is currently suffering from the belief that rich welders are commonplace. I see no evidence at all to suggest that society believes that to be the case. What I do see, are a great many stubborn myths and misperceptions that keep thousands of people from exploring careers in the trades – chief among them, the perception that you can’t prosper as by mastering a skill that’s in demand. At base, I believe your article has given credence to that belief. That’s why I pushed back.

PT: A lot of those five-figure welders are doing their best in a challenging profession, and to my mind, a political dialogue that simply dismisses them as lazy isn’t a particularly constructive one.

MR: We agree that five-figure welders should not be dismissed as lazy. Where we disagree, is whether or not anyone actually believes that 90% of all welders are lazy. Again – if that’s what your book proves, I will not only eat my words and write your next forward, I’ll promote it on this page! But you will need to prove that wealthy welders are in fact, “make believe.” You’ll need to prove that conservatives have used these imaginary figures to convince our society that making $150,000 welding is both “easy and common.” Then, you’ll need to illustrate how that belief has led the masses to conclude that welders who don’t get rich are categorically lazy. In the immortal words of Doc Holiday, if you can do that, I’ll be your huckleberry!

PT: Again, thanks for reading – and let me know where I can send that book!

MR: You’re welcome. My office will be in touch. In the meantime, allow me to return the favor, and send you a copy of my new book. It’s called “The Way I Head It,” (because I prefer to manage expectations with both headlines and titles.) It’s not a terribly important book, but the reviews have been generous, and the publisher is calling it “the feel good hit of the fall.” It’s a collection of stories from my podcast, with some connective tissue that turned it into a quasi-memoir. It will probably not close America’s skills gap, or control the rising cost of tuition. Reading it however, will definitely make you rich…

Mike’s Facebook Page