Is Training a Better Investment than Education?

Worker in the control room of the North Anna nuclear power station. Photo credit: Style Weekly

In his book, ‘The Case against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money,” George Mason University professor Bryan Caplan argues, as the title of his book suggests, that much of secondary school and some 80% of time and expense dedicated to earning a college degree is wasted. Most of the facts and theories we absorb in college have little applicability in the “real world,” that is to say, the world of work, and are soon forgotten. The primary value of a college degree, he contends, is to signal to the labor market that someone has the intelligence, diligence and conformity (willingness to play the rules of the game) to make a good employee.

I’m about halfway through the book, so I don’t know if he adds any important qualifiers, but his arguments were in the back of my mind today as I toured the North Anna Power Station. Other than the engineers (most of whom went to Virginia Tech), relatively few of its 950 employees have college degrees. But that’s not to say they aren’t educated. They are well schooled in the highly specific knowledge and skills required to operate and maintain a nuclear power station.

It takes 39 months of training — classroom instruction, working in the power plant, and scenario training — to become a “plant operator” permitted to enter the nuclear inner sanctum. To graduate to a job in the control room requires an additional 18 months, including hundreds of hours undergoing computer-modeled simulations in a training facility mocked up to resemble the control room. Not only must student-employees meet the expectations of their Dominion managers, they must pass muster with Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC) evaluators.

Any electric utility wants its employees to perform to high standards. But nuclear power plants are a no-forgiveness environment. There is so much at stake should anything go wrong — another Three Mile Island- or Fukushima-style incident would be calamitous to Virginia, not to mention the company — that Dominion spares no expense with training. As consequence, the power-plant jobs are well paid. According to, the pay scale for nuclear power-station operators ranges nationally from $56,000 to $84,000 a year, largely based on tenure. Not bad work for a high school education.

Circling back to Caplan’s book… People retain skills that they apply in the workplace. Indeed, they sharpen and refine those skills. By contrast the “fade out” of college knowledge and skills tends to be high. Some fields of study, such as engineering, computer science, and the health professions, are useful because they teach skills that will be employed in the workplace. But others — theology, ethnic/gender studies, and foreign languages, to pick three examples — are largely useless unless the student aspires to pursue a career teaching those topics.

Personally, I believe there is workplace value in learning how to think and communicate clearly in the spoken and written word — skills which, ideally, are taught in college. But I get Caplan’s larger point. Most of the knowledge I accumulated in pursuit of my B.A. and M.A. in history (with a concentration in African studies) has dissipated. I remember little of the content because I have had no occasion in my adult life to reinforce what I learned. I would like to think that intangible skills gained from my honors history program — how to think rigorously and analytically — carried over to my career in journalism. But I will confess that the ability to write in an academic style proved of so little value in newspaper reporting that I nearly got fired from my first full-time job with the Martinsville Bulletin. Most of what facility I have in writing has come from pounding away on typewriters and keyboards, year after year after year, on the job.

After getting a glimpse of Dominion’s training program, I am more inclined to agree with Caplan’s assessment than I was before: Much of the time and money dedicated to higher education probably is wasted. How to encourage more companies to invest more in vocational training, however, remains an open question. The U.S. workforce is highly mobile. Nuclear power-related skills are not readily transferable, so investing in training makes sense for Dominion. But other companies have little incentive to follow its example if its trainees jump to employers. How we solve that dilemma, I do not know.

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6 responses to “Is Training a Better Investment than Education?

  1. So it’s a “college” education they are challenging, right? Because absent the educational foundation the ends with high school, you won’t have much success learning any real skill of any value. You won’t get into the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School without the English, math and science requirements that parallel college acceptance requirements. And it is the formal higher education system they are challenging, right? Because self-directed reading, a program of visiting historical locations or engaging in other activities that build knowledge outside of the classroom – those things still have value, right? Isn’t that education? I think reading that book might be a waste of my time…I’m willing to come to the defense of the much maligned liberal arts.

    • I haven’t finished reading Caplan’s book, so I don’t want to put words in his mouth. But based on what I’ve read so far, his critique is primarily economic. For many people, higher-ed offers a low return on investment. In a later chapter, he will address whether higher-ed offers a high return on investment for society as a whole. I don’t know what he will conclude.

      What Caplan does not address is higher-ed as a consumption good. If people justify higher-ed on the basis of personal fulfillment, he might argue that that’s OK. But I’m not sure. When I last put the book down, he was arguing that earning a B.A. or M.A. degree doesn’t make people any happier than those without such degrees.

      • College is not what it is about for many occupations now days but to believe that means a lower level of education is to mistake the level
        of academic competence needed to do the work.

        People who train to operate Nuclear plants have to have both the intellectual horsepower as well as high competence in language, math and science to be able to understand/comprehend the many technical manuals that describe the plant and it’s operation.

        This well illustrates what’s going on now in the economy with automation and the knowledge economy. In order to be able to program a drone – you have to understand a LOT of technical concepts…same with autonomous cars… or robots… or many other fields where science and technology are the “new” industrial revolution.

        which really does make one wonder a little bit why we have all this uproar over the price of standard 4-yr college – when -you could get a much more relevant and useful education for the 21st century economy for a lot less Moolah!

        4 year college has become the modern-day “keys to the Kingdom” without people really understanding what the economy is really demanding and I guess one might ask if College has wandered a bit from it’s original premise – did it evolve – with the economy?

  2. Oh, it’s happiness we want! Well, no, remembering my halcyon college days and comparing those with Real World 45 years later is not a path to happiness. And while some might argue my time in Bible, philosophy and theology classes was wasted, I’ve been thundering like Jeremiah the last couple of weeks….Happiness is a warm puppy, a wise man once wrote.

  3. HMMM…. Happiness is “affordable” College?


    Happiness is being able to get health care when you’re sick and may die if you can’t get it…

    seems to be a massive conundrum!

  4. Comment submitted by Steve Emmert:

    I’ve just seen this post from Tuesday. I enjoyed reading about Prof. Caplan’s perspective.

    As you discuss in the comments section, Caplan’s focus is entirely economic and not societal. He’s right that eliminating a great deal of liberal-arts education might make economic sense for a significant sector of society. This is a compelling view, but only if you first don a set of blinders, so you can’t see the effects beyond pocketbook issues.

    If the only thing you want to focus on is making money, then you’re going to nod in agreement with the professor’s thesis. If instead you recognize that our society includes culture, and the arts, and literature, and great ideas, you’ll realize the poverty of his narrow-mindedness.

    Some people deride a liberal-arts education because it includes the word liberal, which conservatives have converted into almost a slur. But in the phrase liberal arts, the word is based on the Latin root liber, meaning “free” or “a free man.” The liberal arts were conceived to free a man from the bonds of ignorance and provincialism; to enable him to think for himself. (I use the masculine because of the historical context; the phrase liberal arts dates to the 1300s, when formal education was primarily conceived as being for men.)

    In that sense, you see the limitation of Prof. Caplan’s approach: If we view our education only as preparation for a trade, we lose the ability to think, to create, to be “free.” It conjures for me an image of, for example, 1960s Bulgaria, where ordinary people were tools of the state and were not “free” in the sense I mention above. When you conceive of Bulgarian art, or literature, or architecture from that era, what comes to mind? Whatever else it is, it’s dim and gray and uninteresting. It makes us cringe to think of the people who had to live under such a regime.

    Like you, I haven’t used many of the skills I mastered in college; all that advanced calculus is largely irrelevant to my career as an appellate lawyer. But the best class I ever took in college was that single one I took from the Philosophy Department. That course prepared me, not just to think critically, but to be a citizen. I attended a graduate school to learn a trade; but by that point, I was already a “free man.”

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