With summer in full swing, let’s reflect a bit on summer jobs. Back in the early 1970s, I landed a job one summer assisting industrial electricians. We spent most of our time wiring machines that were to be installed on automotive assembly lines. The most vivid recollection I have of that summer was the paycheck. We worked a lot of hours, so we ended up making time-and-a-half and even double-time pay. By the time I headed back to college, I had earned enough to pay for my next three semesters with a little left over.

My experience that summer wasn’t unique. Several of my classmates had summer employment that paid for much or all of their next-year’s tuition. And this was at a school considered to be among the top five U. S. engineering colleges.

Fast forward to today. Summer jobs that will pay for more than a year’s worth of tuition at a major school are few and far between. In a nutshell, tuition costs have risen dramatically, a fact well understood by parents with college-age kids. Pay scales for jobs within reach of college students just haven’t kept up.

Consider what it now costs to educate a student for one year at a good engineering school. At Purdue University, the annual in-state tuition alone runs $9,070. Supplies and room and board are extra. Purdue students who don’t happen to reside in Indiana get a tuition bill for $26,622. Aspiring engineers at Georgia Tech pay an annual in-state tuition of $8,716 and an out-of-state tab of $26,926.

To pull off a feat similar to my own in the 1970s, today’s college kids would have to find a three-month, 58-hour/week summer job paying north of $13/hour. Those paying out-of-state tuition would need better than $38/hour to accomplish the same thing. A point that also helps illuminate this situation is the current U. S. minimum wage of $7.25/hour. Back in the 1970s, the minimum wage was below $3/hour. My base rate that summer so long ago was above minimum wage, but not by much.

This analysis explains why many college students finish four years of school with both a degree and a large student loan debt. I believe it also helps show why a significant number of engineering students abandon the engineering field and opt for careers in finance. Consider that entry-level engineering jobs pay in the $60,000 range. For analytical jobs in finance, the entry level is around $90,000, sometimes with a shot at bonuses that can equal that figure. When you are starting a career with fistful of IOUs, that kind of money talks.

And finally there’s this: Efforts to encourage kids toward engineering careers get a lot of press these days. It is a safe bet that most U. S. engineers come from middle-class backgrounds. But a college education increasingly looks out of reach for many kids from middle-class homes. So despite a lot of chest thumping by politicians about the need to reinvigorate manufacturing and boost exports, the high cost of a higher education makes it unlikely this will ever happen.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.