Exit Row Guy

Last week I was returning home from Chicago on a rescheduled fight due to the unfortunate situation at the FAA radar facility in Aurora, IL. Which is just another example of how mental health issues are a more likely contributor to chaos in the U.S. than terrorism. But I digress.

“Have you been to the North Park Theater since the renovation?”

Normally, I am an ear buds in, eyes closed kind of traveler; but my re-booked flight offered me an experience that I think is becoming ever more rare. An opportunity for an extended conversation with a stranger. Spanning real estate, the culinary scene in Buffalo, and our careers my exit row seatmate and I chatted from sitting down at MDW, through the gate delay, refueling, re-stowing of luggage, delayed taxi, and altered flight path through Canada until we departed the plane in BUF. We never exchanged names. But this conversation had a lasting affect on me for the rest of the weekend. You see, exit row guy is me, in 25 years.

Flying home to see his parents who are in their 90’s, exit row guy is in his late 50’s or early 60’s and was born in Buffalo, but now resides in Minneapolis. He ended up in Minneapolis through a series of transfers from his telecom company. From what I gleaned he’s a good technician who has survived three office shut downs over the years in Buffalo, West Virginia, and Long Island. In his last departure they gave him the option of Birmingham, Phoenix, and Minneapolis and just as predictable as snow in January the Buffalonian chose the closest flight to home over a warm winter.

I could feel his love for western New York as I updated him on the gossip around the Bills sale and as he gave me recommendations to his favorite hole-in-the-wall places around town. Only later did I consider that our conversation must have felt strange to him. You see, I chose to move Buffalo for a high-tech white collar job just a few years after he was forced to leave his hometown to keep his high-tech blue collar job. What did he feel as he heard me talk about my new favorite places downtown and lament how the housing market is too fast to keep up with right now. I’m sure he felt pride. Buffalo is nothing if not proud.

As an educator this reflection led me to consider how education may have played a role in this bizarro-world encounter. You see, exit row guy has a good job and has been with a big company for over 20 years. The kind of job that my dad (retired) had, and the kind of job that one could count on for a steady and good paycheck, the drawback is that you are at the whim of the company. These kinds of technical blue-collar jobs have always required a post-secondary education of some sort (college, trade-school, apprenticeship) and so exit row guy got a bachelor’s degree and then went to work.

Things change slowly, then all at once

However, something changed in the 20 years between the beginning of our career’s. Upon earning my Bachelor’s I went to work for a TV station in a technical blue-collar role.  But, I was the first person to ever hold that job who had a bachelor’s degree and I was not paid well (who is in their first job). This job was incredibly unstable, in fact our station was consolidated nine months after I joined and we all lost our jobs.  Luckily, I had already committed to returning to school for a graduate degree in a field I was interested in from an intellectual perspective, not to be sheltered for survival.

Once I concluded my graduate work I had options, in fact I exercised these options to end up in Buffalo by way of Indianapolis, IN and Durham, NC.  I now have a technical white-collar job, love Buffalo, and feel that I am in a position where I will never be forced to move because of my job.


This is a lesson that exit row guy helped me understand. A bachelor’s degree is still uncommon (30% of adults) but has drastically increased (<25% in 1998), thus making it easier for employers to prefer the credential for jobs that did not used to require them. At the same time, master’s degree attainment has remained relatively steady (although increasing during recessionary years) at around 12%.

But what do these observations really mean?  It’s always been easy to point to salary and unemployment as indicators that education continues to pay as an investment.

Salary by Degree Chart

But what exit row guy made me realize is that mobility, both social and physical, is also a huge advantage of elevated education levels.  While exit row guy continues to have a good job with a good salary he has been forced from his home, meanwhile I get to eat his favorite pizza whenever I want, because I have the mobility to choose to be in Buffalo.

Exit row guy got caught by a generational and economic transition point (internet revolution) and does really like Minneapolis, but there’s still a glint in his eyes about Buffalo. I hope circumstances align for him and his wife to come back home soon.