I Was A Potted Plant

Have you ever watched an aircraft mechanic at a party or a wedding in which he knew only one or two people, and the other guests were "professional types" on his wife's side of the family?


The sales pitch did not seem to hit the mark. These mechanics were arguably working for one of the best repair stations in the country. Their collective body language from the majority of them yelled: "We had a good job, so why go back to college in our thirties?" But, I also heard from one or two of them: "Don't you know O'Brien, that only "smart" people go to college or don't you understand that I don't have the time or money to change my lifestyle?"

Back in 1982, I made a conscience decision to get a degree, because I recognized that I knew a lot about fixing airplanes, but very little about the world my customers lived and worked in. I needed to get a working vocabulary outside of the aviation environment. I needed tools to communicate ideas and process new information. That decision changed my life. So, on that August day, I got mad, not because of anything the mechanics did - I got mad at myself because their body language reminded me of an earlier version of me and the damn potted plant experience.

I was also mad that the industry-wide, false concept that mechanics were somehow not smart enough to go to college, was still alive and well. I was mad that even one of us thought that a mechanic was intellectually unable to reach the same level of respect that the public gives other professional career fields. For the next 20 minutes, the poor mechanics were treated to an unscheduled sermon from Father O'Brien.

Looking them in the eye, I said that getting a college degree is not for everyone. A good life should not be determined by a simple piece of paper. However, for those who ever thought about going to college, there are ten truths that you must buy into first before you even consider getting a degree.

The first truth is that you are not the pimple-faced kid you were when you were in high school, or even the military. You are smarter and hopefully better looking. I reminded them that on the other side of this wall, you work on aircraft costing $35 million plus! The very work you do is highly technical in nature and your every action determines safety of flight. Very few colleges prepare their graduates for the responsibilities that the work that you do demands on a daily basis. Even if you never see the inside of a college, I want you to never, ever, again call yourself "just a mechanic," even in the private world of your own thoughts!

The second truth is, do not equate the amount of education with a higher intelligence. Some of the dullest people I have met in my life had a PhD. If you graduated from an FAA approved A&P school, you were subjected to at least 1900 hours of training, (a four-year college degree of 127 credit hours is 1,680 hours), covering 43 subject areas, and you had to pass 9 Federal Aviation Administration exams. I am not aware of any two- or four-year college degree that even comes close to requiring the number of courses that an A&P must successfully complete.

The third truth is the sad fact that our industry, like many other industries, places more credibility on a piece of paper - a college diploma - than on what knowledge a man or woman has learned through experience. So, one is almost forced to get a degree to be promoted. If it helps, think of college as a rite of passage.

The fourth truth is, in today's world, you do not have to go away to college to get a degree - you can get a degree working from your own home. And, there are over 500 colleges to choose from. Five hundred opportunities to excel.

The fifth truth is that if you have an A&P certificate, you already possess over half the credits for a two-year college degree.

The sixth truth is colleges and universities are businesses, and students are their customers. All you have to do is find the right college for your needs and bank account. Everything is negotiable, and don't be fooled by the propaganda that an individual college is concerned with your welfare and personal growth. Trust me, all that nice, warm and fuzzy talk will disappear in a heartbeat if you miss a payment.

The seventh truth is motivation, not money or time, but motivation is what you must have in abundance to start, and more importantly, motivation is what will carry you to finish a college degree. Your family's support is the next biggest factor in accomplishing your goal.

The eighth truth is to deal only with accredited institutions. Avoid diploma mills that offer $500 college degrees displayed on the back of matchbook covers. Even in the '90s, you still only get what you pay for.

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