Doctor? Lawyer? How About Plumber?
The toilet in our main bathroom broke twice this month -- which naturally led to a conversation between my husband Gerry and me about our six-year-old son's future occupation.
Gerry's a jack-of-all-trades around the house, thanks to his career as a facilities manager, so there was no need to call a plumber when the toilet broke. After Gerry fixed it for the second time in a week (first came a worn seal, then a broken valve), he mentioned how much money we save having a plumber on-call 24/7. And he's right: The cost for even minor plumbing work in our metropolitan New York suburb can be staggering.
When the job's too big and we're in need of professional advice, we call on Drew, a good friend and licensed plumber who rarely charges us for his services. Drew's generosity has saved us thousands of dollars over the years: At $65 an hour, this month's bathroom breaks alone would have cost us $130.
Assume a plumber like Drew works a seven-hour day, five days a week and that hourly rate comes to about $118,000 a year. And plumbers can earn far more on bigger jobs: For example, typical plumbing charges for a kitchen remodel in our area run $750 per fixture. Some of the benefits are pretty good, too -- as an independent contractor, Drew is often free to set his own hours, which over the years has saved his family thousands of dollars and a lot of aggravation when it comes to child-care arrangements. Health-care costs are covered by his wife, who works full-time in the banking industry.
After the second toilet breakdown, I joked that from now on Gerry should make sure our son Gerald is close by and taking notes when the next mishap occurs, so he'll learn what to do and be able to save money when he has a home of his own. "You bet, I'll make him a plumber in no time," Gerry laughed.
Do we really want Gerald to grow up to be a plumber? No -- though there's good money to be made, the work is physically demanding and the wear and tear on the body often forces workers to find different work later in life. "Most don't last past 50 on the job," says Frank Rizzo, Secretary of the New Jersey State League of Master Plumbers. "They'll move on to building inspection or another related field." Drew's knees are proof: He's had surgery on one and his doctor has told him he'll soon need to replace the other.
My husband's job can be punishing, too -- years ago he was almost killed when he fell from scaffolding in the warehouse of a former employer. Gerry's often said to me that he would never urge our son to skip college and take a job in his labor union, the way his father did with Gerry. He says that "my son will sit behind a desk like you do -- not break his back for a living."
But I wonder if skilled labor is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living. Most parents still dream of having their kids grow up to be doctors or lawyers -- along with prestige, those careers are seen as guarantees of lifelong financial security. Gerry and I want that for Gerald, but I'm no longer sure obtaining a law or medical degree will provide it. As higher-education costs soar, more students with professional degrees are being forced to take on the equivalent of a small mortgage to pay for them.
Medical students who borrowed to pay for school -- roughly 85% of all students -- graduated with an average of $120,280 in debt in 2005, up 4% from the year before, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C. Almost 67% of those students had loans of more than $100,000. This student-loan calculator from financial-aid Web site FinAid.org shows that average translates to payments of $1,384.19 a month over 10 years, at a rate of 6.8%. That amount of debt could force many young doctors to put off getting married and having children, buying their first homes, and saving for retirement.
Lawyers also face a tough beginning.
"If one graduates with median or higher debt and ends up going to a large law firm that pays six figures, those people are going to be OK," says John Sebert, a consultant on legal education at the American Bar Association. "On the other hand, if one goes into a small firm where you're getting paid $50,000 to $60,000 a year, I can't imagine that that's not going to be a problem."
Gerry's experience has been just the opposite. Gerry's parents were adamantly against his going to college -- his dad urged him to join his union, where he was sure Gerry could land a good-paying job. So he did, and our lives have been the better for it. He bought his first home at age 25, and we married soon after. We've managed to amass relatively considerable retirement savings, largely because Gerry began saving and his employer began contributing to his account as soon as he graduated high school. His union also provides us with the kind of benefits that are vanishing at many employers: We have health-care and disability insurance, and the union is very aggressive about helping its members find work, a perk Gerry greatly appreciated when he lost his job last summer.
My own parents were too busy trying to make ends meet to think much about what their own children would go on to do after high school. At the urging of my high-school journalism teacher, I enrolled in journalism school and graduated five years later -- carrying more than $20,000 in student loan and credit-card debt. My starting salary at my first job? $18,000.
Would I encourage Gerald to follow the same path? Absolutely ... if he shared my love of writing. At this early stage, though, it seems he's got his dad's knack for numbers and an inherent desire to build things. (Our family room holds a small city of Magnetix skyscrapers.) What does he want to be when he grows up? "A sports player!" -- though he's still on the fence about whether to play pro football (American) or pro football (everywhere else). His second choice? "A policeman, so I can ride a motorcycle."
One thing Gerald's sure he doesn't want to be is a personal-finance columnist: "Mom," he sighs, "you're always on the computer."