A letter to the Class of 2004.

I spent about $100,000 of my parents' money on a college degree. I value my education and I had a great time in college. I formed friendships stronger than steel and still smile at the memories. Though I graduated at the top of my class in Business Administration, I didn't learn a darn thing about how to run a successful business.

Now, the professors don't mean any harm. The problem is they have jobs. They don't know any better. How interesting that my business professors didn't have businesses.

Also this month, high school seniors across the land will be proudly waving their diplomas. Their ears will ring with the insistent advice of their parents and counselors, “Go to college so you can get a good job.” Like sheep to the shears, stripped of their choices.

I got an e-mail from Dan Carson, Fort Myers, Fla. He is the executive director of Tri-County Specialty Contractors Association (239/948-7142.) Dan wrote:

    “We have been the proud sponsors for apprenticeship programs in pipefitting, plumbing and HVACR for 32 years. We currently have about 670 apprentices in our programs. But as ever, it is quite difficult to get college-bound students (or any other, as a matter of fact) involved in any stereotypical trade. (I refer to the media stereotypes of our trades.)”
Dan is working with trades professionals and educators in a program called “Open Minds.” In Dan's words, here are some things that they intend to do:
  • Change high school “college counselors” to “career counselors” - and keep it there.

  • Get parents to think beyond the fact that college is the only answer (to all unanswered questions).

  • Finally, target middle school students and below (long term) that the trades are a fantastic new alternative to the college-cures-all mindset.
Dear Reader, please share this letter with the graduates in your life:
    Congratulations, Graduate!

    Now, set aside what you have been told. You have a bright life stretched in front of you. It's not about getting a job. You'll probably have several (dozens of?) jobs. You'll probably get fired once or twice, or laid off. Or your job will be outsourced overseas. Here is the hard truth: The least secure source of income is a job. It's not about getting a job. It's about crafting your life.

    You are going to get some pressure to go to college. If that's what you want to do, go for it. Have fun at college. But don't expect to learn life-crafting skills. Do you love working with your hands? Do you get a charge out of creating something from not much? Have you ever dismantled a toaster (lawnmower, computer, Jeep) just to see if you could put it back together?

    Oh, I love handy people. I am just not built that way. If I were on the TV show “Survivor,” I would not survive. But, you! You can make cheese omelets from coconuts and turn bamboo into a solar-heated aqueduct. You are the person others turn to in the wake of disaster. You understand how things work. You may do well to develop your skills in the trades.

    Since you've graduated from high school, do the college students assume superiority over the trade tech students? Shake it off. Guess who will be more popular should there be a breach in national security (or a high school reunion “Survivor”)?

    Interested in becoming a tradesperson? Go for it! Developing your technical skills and getting your plumbing, electrical or mechanical license can help you get a good job. You could get a better job - pay, benefits - than many of your college-grad buddies. (The same applies to learning a trade like chiropractic, orthodontia, brain surgery, baking and candlestick-making.)

    You'll have to choose your employer carefully. Look for clean trucks, sharp uniforms and a reputation for the highest prices. Do you want great pay, benefits, training and a civilized working environment? Would you like to work for a company that does whatever it takes to delight its customers? Avoid the “discount” company.

    You may really like working for someone else. A well-run shop leaves you free to solve problems, build things, make something from not much. There is a cool culture in the best companies, like a winning baseball team heading for the regional tournament.

    Owning and managing a contracting business is not for everyone. But understand that your life as a tradesperson has a lifespan. After 20 years, your knees and back are on borrowed time.

    Use your job experience to learn about business, and to learn other trades. You will be well-served to have a diverse skill set as you may intend to live a long and prosperous life.

    No matter what, invest in real estate. Scratch the surface of a millionaire and you will likely find a generous portion of real estate on his or her balance sheet. Over a lifetime of renting, you could pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into your landlords' pockets. Wouldn't it be great if “House Buying 101” was a required general education class?

    And plan to grow at least one business. Scratch that millionaire again, and you will find one or more businesses in the investment portfolio. Even if you like working for someone else, consider growing at least one business. Check out the book, “The Cash Flow Quadrant.” Author Robert Kiyosaki does a swell job of explaining how establishing a business entity can protect your assets as well as provide a legitimate vehicle for using pre-tax dollars to grow your empire.

    Why not establish a business for:

    • Selling collectibles and unique attic finds on E-bay.
    • Selling your welding sculptures.
    • Consulting with folks on things you know and they would like to know.
    • Your screenwriting career.
    • Investing in the stock market.
    • Your real estate empire.
    • Visit www.youngbiz.com. This super site is a fun, snappy resource for young biz whizzes. The site is geared toward teenagers, but kids of all ages can learn about business.
    Also check out my site, www.barebonesbiz.com. I am obsessed with business literacy. If you want to play the game of business, you must learn to keep score. And it isn't that difficult. It's easy. They just don't do a good job of teaching it in school. That's what prompted me to write my books. After spending a big chunk of Mom and Dad's money, I still didn't know the basics - like how to make money.

    You see, this is a wonderful world and you have so much opportunity! Seize it. Your parents mean well. Your counselors are trying to be helpful. But this is your life. Explore your options and capitalize on them.

    Have fun. Make a fortune. Be a responsible family and community member. Develop trusting, loving, supportive relationships. Be of service. Be sensitive to Mother Earth. Nurture your spirituality. Live a big life.

    It's a lot more than getting a job.

    Ellen xoxo

Rohr At ISH North America

Ellen Rohr is a scheduled speaker at this year's ISH North America trade show held Oct. 14-16 in Boston. She will present “Beyond Flat Rate - A Revolutionary Approach To Pricing” Friday, Oct. 15 at 9:45 a.m. and repeat the session Saturday, Oct. 16 at 9 a.m. To register for the show, visitwww.ish-na.com.