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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Learn a trade? Yeah right, that's so 20th century.

I've noticed something strange within the past ten years or so. Often, when I meet someone and we discuss our careers, I am left with no clear idea what that person does for a living. Sometimes it's even difficult for him to describe. My brother, for instance, has worked for the same company for years and I really haven't the vaguest notion exactly what he does. It used to be something with computers, now it's something to do with business. I think.

There was a time  when a man could sum up his job in a few words. A coal miner. A plumber. An electrician. A cabinet maker. A chef. A lumberjack. A baker. A blacksmith. A cooper. Until recently, a guy could even call himself a computer programmer and most of us knew what that meant.

Make money. No skills necessary.

Today, people get MBAs and find jobs working for companies that only insiders can understand truly what they do. A lot of data is exchanged with other companies who, in turn, sell that data to other companies who outsource their end of that data to middlemen in India who then somehow manage to massage it and most likely get someone from the original company to buy it. At least that's how I think it works. Is anything really produced? Does it matter?

On the plus side, most of these companies have really cool logos and techie-sounding portmanteau names.

Let's try one. I am going to start up a new company called CollaborLife (TM). As the name suggests, and our mission statement reflects,
We aim to expedite labor in a collaborative environment while enhancing the lives of not just our associates, but the life of our planet itself. 
So, if you have an MBA degree, I'd love to discuss our future together. Your responsibilities will include managing innovation-flow and strategizing problem-solving techniques for the 21st century. Salary starts at $95K.


I'm having a little fun with this, but it illustrates a disturbing trend. The world runs because of people who are actually able to produce things. Without skilled workers, eventually the -ahem- planet will grind to a halt.

Children are rarely taught basic skills needed to make simple repairs, or worse, the critical thinking needed to even comprehend how such tasks might be performed. Chances are, even their dads are unable to provide simple instruction anymore.

Shop class? What's that? Ewww...

For the most part, schools have eliminated vocational training and shop classes. Kids are unable to even try metalworking or wood shop to see if they might find it appealing. When was the last time you saw a kid working on a car in his driveway? Or even a bicycle for that matter?

All of this comes on the heels of the generally accepted belief that All Kids Must Go To University. It's drummed into every child from an early age. Parents panic if a child's math grade falls to a B.

By no means do I intend to disparage the value of education. It is always wise to pursue the highest goals possible, but education and schooling are two separate things. The mistake many "educators" fail to address is that a Ph.D is not a reasonable goal or even a desirable goal for many (very bright, I might add) kids.

And where does this leave them? Well, these kids used to have the option to learn a trade. One that might fit their interests and abilities perfectly. Sadly, without even the opportunity available, they are left with a high school diploma, which is worth the paper it's printed on. They have no university prospects and have had no chance to learn a meaningful trade. We are left with two classes of workers: unskilled laborers and pencil pushers with master degrees.

So when an assembly-line worker discovers a leak under his sink on a holiday weekend, he has to scramble to find a plumber. When the IT Tech breaks the leg of his dining room chair (no doubt from obesity due to lack of exercise) he is clueless to repair it. Likely he will just buy an entirely new dinette set.

The revenge of the tradesmen

Carpenters are often looked down upon by "educated" folk as unintelligent people who never studied in school. Plumbers have been the butt (pun intended) of many jokes. Auto mechanics are typically thought of as rip-off artists who always tack on extra charges to the customer. Nothing like the honorable laborers who toil away on Wall Street.

Teachers discourage learning trades. Parents are frightened of the prospect. Even recent U.S. presidents continually prattle on about learning nothing but "math and science, math and science, math and science" and getting a university degree. The elitist implication here is that people who choose different paths are worthless to society.

More and more, job openings for skilled tradesmen are going unfilled. The irony to this is that we are headed to a day when people who have manufacturing and repair skills are going to be some of our most sought-after citizens. We have always complained about the high cost of hiring a plumber. Well, imagine having to double that fee due to lack of people willing to get dirty. It may get to the point where a guy who can hang drywall and cut a decent cove moulding can demand fees as high as a stock broker. That will truly be the last laugh.

Mike Rowe addresses the senate

Mike Rowe is one of my favorite people. Sure he's a celebrity, but he understands this problem well. He recently addressed the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, hoping to enlighten them on the dearth of skilled labor. It's a spectacular speech. And your homework. Take a few moments to read it here or watch the video here:

I hope that some time in the future, adults will finally begin to allow kids to explore opportunities available to them and stop micro-managing their futures. We can certainly begin to present these options once again. It would also be nice if Dad would pick up a hammer once in a while rather than a phone to call for help. At the very least, kids might begin to understand that anything is possible if you learn to live to your own standards and not someone else's.


  1. you're dead on with this post Steve. I just wish I knew it back when I was 18. I was pushed by my family to go to college and I ended up with both a bachelors and a masters. I now work a fairly lifeless office job but my family would say I'm a success because I'm the first ever to work in an air conditioned office instead of a factory. You know what? I hate it. All day all I produce is emails and paperwork. I have nothing to show for my efforts. Except of course a student loan debt so large it nearly matches my mortgage and prohibits me from doing other things in life. If I knew at 18 what I know now, I could have been years ahead by learning how to wire, pipe fit, cut wood, etc.

    But there is hope. even for someone like me who went through the white collar way, once I bought a home I realized I couldn't afford to pay someone to do all the updates and repairs I needed. Now not only do I fix/build pretty much anything I need but I find I enjoy it so much that I've started a small wood working business on the side. All day in the garage making a few items to sell sure beats all week in the office making sure the blue papers go in the folder next to the binders.

    You know what the worst part of the problem you point out in your post is? people are so far removed from being able to fix things and companies have realized its more profitable to sell new things instead of parts for old things. Half the stuff that breaks isn't designed to even be fixed!

    1. YOU have it dead ON!! I feel exactly the same way you do! I sooooo wish I had taken more interest in woodshop and technical drawing class!! Actually I did but when I got my projects home I got, "that's cute dear....but where is your report card?" I am almost 50yrs old with two and 2/3rds degrees and a number of certificates in my desk drawer (I've never even got them hung on the wall!) and really wishing I had learned to be a carpenter!! I could be so much more useful to myself and my society if I had learned a meaningful trade that I could get better and better with over time rather than pieces of paper where every new batch of graduates makes me more and more obsolete!! I wonder if it is too late to learn some kind of trade...even if it isn't carpentry!

  2. Good article. I grew up watching my friends be to busy playing video games too learn how to fix a flat bike tire. Thanks to my parents I managed to escape that fate. I think that the only hope we have of fixing this problem is fixing the parents that cause it in the first place.

  3. Excellent post. I'm biased though since I agree with it. I almost went the white collar route but chickened out at the last minute because I didn't think I was prepared for a university. I had the highest SATs in my class, but I was smart enough to know that our podunk school hadn't prepared any of us to go straight to college. I chucked all the scholarships and went to trade school and was a successful construction superintendent for over 20 years. That may not sound like a "trade", but one reason I was successful is I paid attention to all the trades on the job and when a minor repair was needed I grabbed the tools and took care of it faster, cheaper, and better than it would have been done anyway while all the other superintendents in the company were still on the phone trying to get the subcontractor back.

    After watching the construction industry go downhill for most of my career and my position becoming more and more "information oriented" rather than results oriented I bailed out of that. Now I'm a full time woodworker on my own terms. My initial thought was to sell some basic complicated components for projects that I knew most people wouldn't have the tools to make. I've learned that most people just want the whole project shipped to them complete and now people pay me to do the simplest (to me) projects.

    I'm not encouraging my homeschooled kids to go to college, or even trade school. When people ask "how are they going to get a job without a degree?" the answer is easy, "start their own company". With access to a nationwide, at the least, marketplace through the internet there's really no limit. Just find a niche and be the best at it. Of course it takes a decent amount of education, but without wasting time in school that's easy to pick up.

    Goggle "higher education bubble".

  4. The planet is not going to grind to a halt. My grandfather was one of the founding members of the Carpenter's Union and what I remember him telling me was never lift anything heavier than a pencil if you don't have to! Of course I didn't pay listen to him and I got into construction. The rest is as they say history and I really should have paid more attention in Spanish class too.

    Some jobsite humor, a carpenter is just a laborer with tools and a plumber is just a carpenter that can't get anything level.

  5. Steve,

    Thanks for your insight and great post. My son Alan loves you site and has learned so much from studying your posts. In fact, your site has been a big part of his homeschool curriculum this year. We've covered the traditional topics like literature and algebra, but I'm convinced Alan has learned as much from you and Mark S. Next year he will start 9th grade at a math/science HS, which does not teach woodworking. They do have a woodworking club and a nice shop. Hurray.

    Our plumber is one of the smartest guys I know. He's trustworthy and has saved us so much $. I'm always amazed how he can fix a big problem with a 40 cent washer.

    Thank you so much. Kristin from North Carolina

  6. As a very Proud graduate of a Vocational & Techenical School which has since dropped the word Vocational from its tilte. I fully agree. I have worked in a number of areas and I believe learned something from everyone of them. Now as a managing "Jack of All Trades" i.e. park ranger, I encourage those that work with me to get their hands in and do something different. My current seasonal staff is all in their first year of college and I am glad to see that they are willing to work outside and on the equipment and learn these skills.

    Thanks for a great site and a great post.


  7. It's nice to hear from other homeschoolers. After doing this for 14 years, I am continually astounded at how receptive kids are to learning. Unfortunately, school seems to suck that out of them at an early age.

    I don't particularly like the term "homeschooling" for that very reason. It implies that what we are doing is simply bringing the school model into the home. For the most part, Wyatt is able to accomplish in one hour things it takes hours or even days in school. He is free to explore much more on his own or with direction if he needs it.

    As he is entering high school next year, he is proficient in all academic subjects and ahead in some. He has never viewed learning as a chore, nor does he associate learning with a building. He has always been interested in performing arts, so he pursues that.

    Obviously, homeschooling is a lifestyle choice and not one practical to everyone. The key for any kid...especially those struggling in school, is to at least be given options and encouraged by SOMEONE to explore them.

    We have defined their options to a very narrow path. Blindly telling kids over and over that there is only one route in life is sad: Get good grades, get a degree, get a job, pay taxes and spend money. What you are interested in (or may have a knack for)is irrelevant in this model.

  8. Hello Community!

    I am constantly amazed at Steve's perspective on the world. He basically summed up my life so far.

    I am a 22 year old who was raised under the ideas of higher education. Both of my parents have their computer jobs and make more than enough money. As I graduated high school with good marks, I applied to the local university and was accepted for a "general studies" program. I had no idea what I actually wanted to do or study, so "general" was my only option. As luck would have it, I met an electrician over the summer break who offered me a job working for him. Instead of going to university in the upcoming fall, I kept my job as an electrician.

    As you might guess, my parents cried massive scandal.

    This was four years ago, as I am now a 4th year electrical apprentice. I have no regrets on skipping university for a trade. I honestly believe I have learned copious amounts more in a trade than any university could have taught me... And I am not referring to empirical knowledge either. I gained a lot of common sense (something few kids have these days).

    Besides electrical trade knowledge, I have learnt bits from other trades. I do not need to call a plumber to fix a leak or instal a new low-flush toilet and I do not need to wait 48 hours for a furnace technician to fix my furnace when its -30 degree Celsius.

    The real irony of it all is my parents had to call the above mentioned trades to deal with these problems. Each time I told them "I can fix that no problem." And each time they were too proud to let me show them what I had learnt. So they paid the 250-770$ service calls each time.

    So if anyone is still reading my ramblings, I highly recommend any trade to anyone with even a small desire to try it. You will be rewarded personally and financially (honestly... I'm 22 and I OWN my truck and own about half of a new town house. Not to mention any of my woodworking tools. 4th year electrician pays well).

    1. A Big GRATS to you Adam, I never could find anything but the trades industry more appealing to myself. Always loved the hands on, getting the jobs done from the higher ups (making them look good) lol. GL in your future. and keep passing that trade on to :)

  9. Steve, I'm with you on the term "homeschool", although obviously I still slip up and use it myself. "Home education" or "home educated" is a much more accurate term.

    You're right about having the desire to learn sucked right out of kids. It almost happened to me which is initially why I decided my kids wouldn't go to gov't school.

    Educating at home may not be practical for a family's current lifestyle, but I've reached the conclusion that life is all about priorities and anyone who would let the gov't raise their kids has their priorities screwed up. Sorry about all those toes I just stomped on, but that's the way it is.

  10. You are acknowledging a fact that many know but few are willing to accept. I ditched 10+ years in information technology to build furniture and fix homes full time. Since leaving a year ago I have worked harder than I ever did in my tenure in corporate IT and I have never been this satisfied in my life!

    However there is a tradeoff, mostly income. I'm probably making a tenth of what I was but business is slowly growing.

    Most people associate college and good job with security. It's a given fact that this a false statement. In fact I now feel much more secure in my new career. Instead of trying to impress one client (my boss) and a rigid job role with little flexibility I now have a portfolio of skills and clients from which to choose from and market to.

    Has the transition been easy, no. Has it been rewarding and fulfilling, yes, more than you can imagine.

    I think that "white" collar are higher paying are because nobody in their right mind would sit in a fixed position for 8 - 10 hours a day staring at a computer screen.

  11. Sshhh.. quiet steve. You know that Big Brother doesn't like it when you don't conform. If You keep making videos that can be viewed by minors, and possibly influence them, you will surely be locked up.

  12. Steve,
    I must say I am very green in woodworking. I started off woodworking this past January because my mother needed chest of drawers for a very odd shaped space, and after looking around at different stores, I finally looked at one and opened my mouth and said, "I could make that." Well it took me a little while, especially with mostly hand tools and no knowledge, and a few drops of blood, but I got the piece done and it fit perfectly for her space. I was hooked.

    I'm a college graduate who doesn't use his degree, but I've worked as a manager in restaurants and movie theaters. I always try to fix things out my place of business before calling in a professional, because it saves me money in the end. I didn't learn any of these skills from school, but my looking at a problem long enough (critical thinking) and trying to figure out the easiest solution (although I often did it the hard way, but that's how we learn sometimes).

    But on to your post here. My mother works at the local high school, and she and I had a discussion about this topic. I think high school especially should offer a program where your last two years can be spent as an apprentice with a carpenter, plumber, pig farmer, circus freak, etc. Many of these jobs require the use of math or science in one way or the other, along with other important skills that you can't often learn in a class room, like how to deal with angry customers. I think the lose of apprenticeships, with the rise of everyone should get a high school diploma (and now even college diplomas are becoming just as valuable as high school diplomas thirty/forty years ago) in our nation was a grave mistake. We should return to that form of on the job training, and people still graduate with a high school diploma. It seemed like a win win to me.

    Well anyway, thank you for your website here and all your zany videos. I've learned a lot from watching you, and now have to go and fix a few problems with some chest of drawers.

  13. I wish more of these schools existed throughout the nation. It seems that quality trade schools are concentrated in the north eastern part of the country.


    I live in the south and my city just laid off 95 vo-tech teachers. "We found areas that could be discontinued because they were educating children for careers that no longer exist."

    Sad very very sad.

  14. Surprised not to see a mentioned of Matt Crawford's Shopcraft and Soulcraft on here...he goes in depth on this very topic. I've been telling every high schooler I meet to learn a trade or skill of some kind...whether they are going to college or not, it will pay off. We can't outsource our plumbing or home repairs to India or China.

  15. Steve, maybe you have heard of this book: Labor and Monopoly Capitalism: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, by Harry Braverman. Here is the synopsis on Amazon: 'First published in 1974, this text is written in a direct way by Harry Braverman, whose years spent as an industrial worker gave him insight into the labour process and the conviction to reject the reigning wisdoms of academic sociology. Here, he analyzes the division of labour between the design and execution of industrial production, which underlies all our social arrangements.' A very interesting book.

  16. Hi Steve,

    Im Jean from Chile. I like so much your webpage and today i found this.

    Wow, it just came to me in a very critical moment of my life. Im on the end of my mayor (Industrial Civil Engineering) thats its orientated to business, optimize cost, finances and a lot of boring things.

    I choose this mayor because i wanted to have good tools in the moment when i wouyld like to create my company.

    Some days ago, i realized that my objetive of getting a job was changed. For example, i was trying to get a big company job, make a lot of money to buy all the things i ever wanted. But suddenly i found that this goal was never what i really wanted. Some guy told me that if i have a lot of money i will be happy. (that guy was my university)

    What about my own interest? what about the jobs that really make each people happy? I can not understand how many people is being happy working on Finances! And dont take this the wrong way, but is really this people doing what it make them happy in their own identity ?

    I love WW, but woodworking is onlyu my way of expression; i love Art and Desing. But here in this contry, art dont make much money. In fact, it doesnt cover the basic of a family needs in most cases. And with all these chinese forniture that its cheap and useful, woodworking dont have a growing curve in money success.

    So i was told to make money,but i really want to do what i love to do. And my fiance keep telling me that in the future, i need to make money for a good house, a good education for child and good situation.

    People thinks happyness is in tha money you make. But i know many rich fami-lies that are not too happy at all.

    Well, it was very dificult to expres myself in english. Let my finish telling you i love your site and i love the way you explain things. And im so agree with you on this post! I always think; what happen if the world collampses and a just a few survive? they'll keep selling in wallstreet of nature? hahaha bad joke :S Sorry for my english!

    Saludos desde Chile!

  17. Thanks Jean,

    Well said. We seem to be directing our kids' lives based on fear. Fear that they will not make a lot of money. Fear is not a good motivator: ambition, desire and passion are far stronger.

  18. Great old joke.

    Lawyer calls an electrician to fix his broken circuit. Elecrician comes in, looks at the circuit breaker, pulls out a flashlight, pulls on a few wires, hits the circuit breaker three times, and screws in two loose wires. Problem solved in five minutes.

    Electrician says that will be $50.

    The lawyer says: "Wait a minute. $50 for 5 minutes? That's $600 per hour! I'm a LAWYER and I only get $300 per hour.

    Electrician says: "Oh, is that what it's up to now? I only billed $250 an hour when I was practicing."

    BTW, I am a lawyer -- so I can make the joke. I often encourage people who have had trouble in book school to consider a trade -- the tradesman often make a very very nice living.


  19. My husband suggested I read this post; it's very good. You're saying what many are afraid to say.

    We just "graduated" our fourth and youngest homeschooled kid. After 25 years of teaching our kids at home, I can tell you that one of the greatest advantages of homeschooling is that kids have time to learn the practical skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. It's up to parents to provide opportunities to learn those skills. Given our economic situation, it's crucial that they do so.

    Again, excellent post :)

  20. The great things about trades work:
    - Can't be outsourced. Nobody ships their toilet to China to get it un-clogged.
    - Tangible results: You know when it's done, and done right
    - Satisfaction in knowing you've improved the world, or at least one tiny piece of it.

    I'm not in the trades - PhD - but I have great respect.

  21. I guess my views on this can be summed up by a quote from John Gardner-
    "The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."

    My dad had a doctorate in English Education and taught at a local college, but when it came to fixing things around the house he did it all himself (with us kids helping of course). The only time I can remember a plumber actually being called in was when we needed a roto-rooter. I think part of it was that he grew up in a poorer family where they might not of been able to afford to call in a repairman for every little thing. But I think another part was to teach his kids how to work, and how to fix things themselves.

    Now I am also a college teacher, though currently only part time. I've seen a lot of students who are in college for the wrong reasons. A lot of these kids have been told that they need to go to college to get a "good job". There's nothing wrong with that, but too many of these kids don't know where they are going in life and take out huge student loans while they try to "find themselves". Then they can't get a job relevant to their degree, and are often stuck in that rut for most of their lives.

    I think a lot of the problem is these kids never learned how to work. Work can take on many forms, and it isn't my place to say that one is more valuable then the other, because I am not convinced that they are. (A big problem is that society thinks one is more valuable than the other, see the quote I put at the beginning). Too many of these kids never learned how to work, let alone schoolwork, but sit at home and play video games. I've met too many college students who want to be video game designers. I think a big reason is because that's all they know.

    One last story to sum things up. One time growing up a well dressed woman in an expensive car pulled up along side of us at a gas station. The woman paid my brother $20 to check her tire pressure because she didn't know how. At the time all I could think was 'how could someone not know how to check their own tire pressure?' but in retrospect I learned a valuable lesson that day- there's good money to be made off of those who haven't learned how to do things themselves.

  22. Hi Steve,

    love the site, I would say that what you and others have written about happening in the USA are also happening in Britian. University degree's seem to have become this holy grail that will garuntee you a big income, house and car.

    People seem to have forgoten that life is for living and at the end of it you won't turn around and say "I wish I had bought a bigger house" I left a good paying job to work for myself and although the money is'nt always great the bills get paid I work when I want and where I want to.

    One day I think people will wake up to the death of apprenticships but by then it will be to late.

  23. Hi Steve,
    All very true. Problem being the cost of repairing things. Cost more than a new Item
    hence people throw it away then repair it. Which means no repair work for tradesmen.

  24. With regards to your first sentence: folks who have these rather vague job titles were often the ones who were laid off first during the recession and have trouble finding employment now.
    Good essay.

  25. I love your videos. What is about americans that they love to shit about India. Indian govt defines poverty level as Rs32 per day ie about USD 0.70 Per day. By conservative govt estimates 40% of India's population is under the govt poverty level. That should add up to be about 480 millon people. Those earning a $1 are of course not counted as poor. So before you people start shitting about India and Indians please have some heart. I know that you have some problems in US but please don't go through the vulgar statements like Obama makes "I will get jobs back from India" . What that means is "I want to ensure that every Indian remains below the US$0.70 per day wages so that America can go back to work!! American companies sell cars, Soft drinks and many unnecessary stuff for life. American govt wants WallMart to be allowed in India. Because of size of market India and China will be biggest markets for US products even bigger than US. You have all but lost the consumer goods market in most of the world due to arrogance of American companies we are well served by local and Asian companies so thank you so much. If such stupidity keeps coming form US you will also loose the market where you enter because the Govt holds the key in certain industry structure.
    For all the brouhaha about Indian IT and Call center companies they command less than 1% of the world market in those sectors.

  26. I agree with your blog on this page 90%. I am a senior--71 years old. I have lived in New York -going into 45 years. I studied, read and worked with Electricity & Electronics, I have been doing plumbing, welding, carpentry all these 40 years and have obtained my MBA at Fordham University in 1972. I believe education lies in both trade and school math, sciences and more importantly in the Humanities (Logic, Ethics, Philosophy). Why are they called "The Humanities"? It's because these are the stuff that soften the "harsh" and "sharp" edges of humanity (much like the carpentry tools that we use to smooth those rough edges in wood). Enjoyed all your pages and videos. Keep up the your good work that includes your passion for promoting honesty in all trades and occupation. God bless you.
    Manny Crisol