Blog: Redefining the Standard Definition of ‘Smart’

When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, my parents drilled into my head, ”Go to college to get a good job.” 

When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, my parents drilled into my head, “Go to college to get a good job.” The implication being that, if I earned a four-year degree, a good paying job would follow because I had secured that college diploma. Recently, I had the chance to speak with some college educators, including a college dean, and was stunned to find out that from within the academic world, the interpretation now is very different.

Within academia, either stated or implied, the position of many educational facilities is that universities are places of higher learning — not job readiness institutions. This brings to light a gap in the perception in the minds of many parents and students who think they will be better positioned in the job market by pursuing a four-year year degree and the potential of a mountain of college debt that goes with it. Unless a student is getting four-year degree in accounting or nursing (i.e. a skill), it could be argued that a student (and his/her parents’ money) might be better served by attending a vocational school that prepares them for a career.

Colleges focus on teaching critical thinking, while vocational schools focus on learning critical skills, along with a certain level of critical thinking. College is considered to be the place where “smart” people go. What isn’t discussed is that many smart people never attend college.

Consider the person with a liberal arts degree from an Ivy League school, who has taken classes in philosophy and poetry. Their average income, according to, is $44,000. Now, imagine one day that person comes home from work and has a burst pipe in their basement and they need to call a plumber. The plumber, who works with his hands — and doesn’t have a four-year degree — has to be “smart” to be able to practice his craft. He must be able to use problem-solving skills. And, in all likelihood, he’s doing a job that many college graduates would think is beneath them. Ironically, he makes more money annually than the liberal arts degree holder, without having student loans to pay back. According to U.S. News & World Report, the plumber earns an average of $54,620 annually — almost $11,000 more than the college graduate.

Colleges often market themselves as building “the leaders of tomorrow.” There is nothing wrong with that, however, what is missed in the equation is that there is limited space at the top for leaders. Leaders need people to lead, people who will do the day-to-day work.

Leaders don’t have the luxury of leaving work at the office. There is a large portion of our society that simply want to go to work, do their job, go home, and leave any work stress at the office. There is also nothing wrong with being this worker. Having less work stress taken home might even be considered smart.

As a society, do Americans value the right things? There are many who look down upon people who do not have a four-year college degree, until they need them. For example, in the summer, when the air conditioning breaks down, the HVAC guy is a “savior.” Or, when the car breaks down, a certified mechanic who fixes the issue is “great guy” at that moment.

There is value in being well read and well educated — i.e. book smart. However, there are many other forms of intelligence that are not measured in a standardized test. Educator and writer Mike Rose discovered in his research that “the carpenter and the welder are constantly solving problems, applying concepts, making decisions on the fly. A lot of our easy characterizations about work just don’t hold up under scrutiny. Hand and brain are cognitively connected.”

Rose argues there is value in the hands-on worker and their commitment to their craft. Rose writes, “aesthetic concerns arise frequently and in surprising settings. An electrician rebraids the wires of a perfectly functional assembly because they’re ‘ugly.’ A contractor admires the ‘pretty’ shaping of conduit under the eaves of a roof. A plumber runs his finger one more time over the caulking of a newly installed toilet to ‘make it look nice.’ ”

Yet, many parents do not encourage their kids to go into a skilled trade that provides societal value. Most parents think those jobs are out dated and going by the wayside. The demographic data does not support that.

The staffing company Adecco recently released an article that demonstrated that baby boomers are the majority of the skilled labor sector, creating career opportunities for millennials when they soon retire. In 2012, 53 percent of the skilled labor workforce was over 45 years old. The data goes onto predict that if more young people do not go into the skilled labor workforce, 31 million positions will be left vacant by 2020 due to the retiring baby boomers.

At an average median wage of $20.25 per hour for a vocational skilled worker, coupled with the current and future need for a new skilled workforce, its time society re-defined “smart.”

Todd Palmer is founder and president of Troy-based Diversified Industrial Staffing and Diversified PEOple LLC and a regular contributor to DBusiness. ​