Remember how excited we all were a few months ago when Memorial Day rolled around, signaling the unofficial start of summer? Then school let out, people took summer vacations, we flipped burgers on backyard grills and oohed and aahed over fireworks displays when we celebrated our nation’s independence on July 4. September 5th is fast approaching, and while to many of us, it is symbolic of the end of summer and a return to the grind, the day has significance that is absolutely deserving of our honor and respect.
New York was one of the first states to recognize a labor day holiday (Oregon, that trendsetter, beat us to it). In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed into law legislation declaring the first Monday in September a federal holiday – Labor Day. Distinguished from what was then called May Day and is now known as International Workers Day, Labor Day is a holiday that is intended to honor the dignity of labor. Labor built this nation. Labor paved the roads, it built the skyscrapers, and it connected the east and west coasts via the infamous golden spike in the Transcontinental Railroad. American labor built cars and machinery, labor sewed your suits and bedsheets, your favorite pair of broken in jeans. Labor built America. We should all take time to recognize and appreciate the efforts of the Americans before us who helped to create this great nation, and whose labor built one of the strongest economies in the world.
How do we, personally, define “an honest day’s work”? What does hard work mean to you? If you spend your hours researching and writing, does that have more value than the work of your neighbor who spent her day installing water mains and conduits? Which one is labor? Is it both? Part of our pursuit of the American dream is that parents want more for their children than they had themselves. The path to success is to go to college and get an education, because that diploma is the key to opening the door to your future. That is still, for the majority of us, what we expect of and hope for our children. Go to a good school. Get a degree. Maybe go to graduate school. Get a good, high paying job to support yourself and your family and never have to do back-breaking labor to be able to get by.
Maybe it is time to re-think things a bit, though. The price of a college education has risen at an incredible rate. Just by way of personal example, the all-in cost of my private four year university has more than tripled in the few short (okay, okay, 25) years since I graduated. Students are graduating from college with an enormous debt load, debt they freely and willingly incurred because the expected return was a high-paying job that would be unavailable to them without that degree in hand. While that still may be the case, it isn’t the only route to success, and it certainly isn’t the best route for everyone. Not every kid is going to excel in college, and not every kid is going to graduate and land the dreamed-about job – and for those young people, the student loan debt will be crushing.
This brings me back to where I started. Labor. The value of hard work. Honor and dignity in working with your hands. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are in excess of three million skilled jobs available, which points out very clearly that we have a skills gap because there are not enough people entering the skilled trades to fill the jobs. Maybe, instead of going to college, your daughter might consider entering an apprenticeship where she can work while she learns, get actual on-the-job training, and then when her peers are graduating from college, she can be a qualified electrician/steamfitter/ironworker, with no college loan debt, and earning a starting salary and benefits comparable to if not better than those friends with the bachelors degrees. There is upward mobility in the skilled trades, as well, and the six figure income standard of success is quite attainable.
We all have our own definitions of success, what it means to have made it. For some, that is a college education and the kind of job that requires a degree. For others, it’s entry into a skilled trade. On this Labor Day and every day, let’s take time to honor them both. One is not more worthy of our respect than the other, and both are essential to the continued growth of the awesome America that labor built.