'MERICA — Florida Senator Marco Rubio thinks America could do with more welders and fewer philosophers.
In the fourth Republican debate on Tuesday, Rubio, third in the polls but the favorite to win the GOP nomination, said: "For the life of me, I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational training. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers."
Is Rubio correct?
Media outlets have rushed to fact-check Rubio on the salary claims, some pointing to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the median salary for welders was $40,040 in 2014, compared to $71,350 for postsecondary teachers of philosophy and religion.
But this is not a sound comparison. Welders in Alaska make as much as $72,000 per year, while those learning a speciality can make well in excess of $100,000 annually.
Rubio is correct that the U.S. needs more welders. The welding industry expects 400,000 vacancies by 2024 as older workers retire. With fewer young people opting for trades or blue collar work, the U.S. faces a shortage of skilled labor, which could imperil economic growth.
According to the New York Times, entry-level welders command about $16.50 per hour, while those willing to work in remote locations or take up a speciality can earn as much as $100 per hour.
This doesn't need to be a cultural debate pitting philosophy majors versus welders. Philosophy equips students with critical thinking and analytical skills useful in a whole host of jobs.
The larger issue is whether blue-collar work has been stigmatized, as Rubio claims, and whether more should be done to encourage young people to consider vocational education.