That Blue Collar Looks Fabulous On You

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Check out an unlikely but fascinating essay on the death of skilled trades, the ignoble demise of shop class, and the mechanization of the vaunted "post-industrial economy" in The New Atlantis by Michael B. Crawford. His advice: "go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You're likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems."

And this:

An engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to "hide the works," rendering the artifacts we use unintelligible to direct inspection. Lift the hood on some cars now (especially German ones), and the engine appears a bit like the shimmering, featureless obelisk that so enthralled the cavemen in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Essentially, there is another hood under the hood. This creeping concealedness takes various forms. The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or the angry from interrogating the innards. By way of contrast, older readers will recall that until recent decades, Sears catalogues included blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.

Read the whole thing.

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  1. Why fix something when you can just buy a new one?

  2. A friend of mine worked at the IT helpdesk of a local county technical school. She said that there was a dearth of plumbing and electrical students in spite of aggressive marketing by the school — “Look kids: Good starting salaries! High demand!” But no interest. Computers are just “cooler” than plumbing. Some of the demand for those trades may have been artificially inflated by the home construction boom of the last few years, but at least plumbing and wiring aren’t being phased out or outsourced.

  3. Lamar –

    Because you lose something important when consumption is the only way you have of interacting with your personal environment.

  4. Uncle Lumpy,

    Well, something’s lost and something’s gained in whining every day…

  5. Everyday plumbing and electrical work is unbelievably easy to do – speaking as a DIYer. Most of it is intuitive and that which isn’t, you can look up on the internet.

    Being an IT guy on the other hand, definitely pays less than being a handyman. It’s easy enough to blame the high price of tradeskills on government gatekeeper licensing, collusion between the government and trade unions, etc. The biggest problem with IT workers is that they haven’t unionized to give government a kickback in order to rake in the big bucks.

  6. “Because you lose something important when consumption is the only way you have of interacting with your personal environment.”

    Like what? As Bastiat demonstrated over 150 years ago, the natural state of humans is to be consumers.

  7. I bought some books on electronics a couple of months ago, having the urge to learn something useful. As opposed to, say, the law. My aim is to build an army of robots, but I’m willing to settle for something? electronic that I built myself.

    ?So long as it has friggin’ “lasers” on its head, that is.

  8. I read a year or so ago a discussion in the main aviation trade journal (Aviation Week) pointing out that kids (primarily boys) in the thirties through the sixties grew up tinkering with cars (or at least Erector/Meccano sets) and became somewhat proficient with their hands.
    The aviation industry still needs people who can bend metal (or composites), at least metaphorically speaking, and the point of the article is that ‘kids today’ just don’t have those skills anymore, and the aviation industry in the US is in danger over the long run.
    And if you look at the wages that skilled tradesmen earn these days it’s a wonder more kids don’t drop out of school and follow pipefitters around.

  9. Even so, the Wall Street Journal recently wondered whether “skilled [manual] labor is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living.” This possibility was brought to light for many by the bestseller The Millionaire Next Door, which revealed that the typical millionaire is the guy driving a pickup, with his own business in the trades.

    He’s got it exactly right – out of the crowd I went to high-school with, I only know of 2 guys that are currently running multi-million dollar businesses. They both did it the same way. Neither one of them went to college, both of them wound up in the building trades, and eventually branched out into becoming general contractors. Of all the the M.S.’s and Ph.D.’s that I know, some of them might be fairly well-to-do, but none of them is anywhere near independently wealthy.

    Being an IT guy on the other hand, definitely pays less than being a handyman.

    Depends on the level of IT guy. For a help desk tech or generic business application programmer, there’s not much bucks to be had anymore. But if you have an expertise in some specialized technologies that are highly in demand, you can still write your own ticket.

    Of course, at that level of specialized expertise, arguably you’ve become a skilled tradesman, rather than a “cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems”.

  10. my handyman, who has never had formal training in the trades or gone to college until recently, rewired my entire house (which passed inspection), built a cement retaining wall under my house, installed my central heat, and has done numerous carpentry jobs for me. right now he is actually in college for the first time, going to nursing school. he works all summer, for himself, and doesn’t have to in the winter when he’s in school. also just sold a house that he rehabbed and made $100k, and then bought a large house with his partner that they’ll turn into about 5 apartments and rent out. they also rent out rooms in the 5 br house where they live as well as the garage behind it that he converted to an apartment. after he finishes nursing school he plans to work part-time as a nurse because he likes it, and deal in real estate to make real money.

    all this and he is about 35 years old. and he’s totally cute. and gay, dammit dammit dammit…

  11. Never mind his sexual proclivities–what does he charge per hour for fixing things? And is he anywhere near the Detroit area?

  12. Uncle Lumpy-
    I was being facetious. It’s understandable why businesses want to engineer out any user-serviceable components. What isn’t clear is why so many people are willing to give up the power to control items they purchase.

  13. He charges $50/hour and he’s in the SF East Bay. Upgraded my whole house from knob and tube to 100 amp service with exterior receptacles and motion detector lights for about $7000. That’s easily half of what it would’ve cost if I’d gone with a licensed electrician. Plus, I got to see a lot of him when he was all sweaty and dirty and sometimes even with his little electrician’s butt crack showing. Those were good times.

  14. Lamar –

    Oh. Never mind.

    FYI, Snap-On Tools has wrenches that will remove most “security” fasteners, and you can buy JIS screwdrivers (for $%&@! Sony laptops). Bayonet fasteners I just drill out and replace with self-tapping screws. But they sure don’t make it easy.

  15. van, I think that Penthouse Letters might have a job opening. Certainly they would at least look at someone with your, uhhh, passion for writing.

  16. There are two ways to make a living:
    1. Snooker thy fellow.
    2. Work for someone who works for someone who works for someone who works for someone who snookers her fellow.

  17. Not only can you make money doing skilled trades, I think sometimes there’s a difference in the class of the people you socialize with which can save you oodles of money as well.

    My uncle came from Ireland in the 50s with an 8th grade education and maybe 50 bucks in his pocket, and when he died in the mid 80s he left each of his 6 kids a paid for house, and two to his wife. He’d buy a fixer upper, fix it up, rent it out, buy another, etc.

  18. Ayn_Randian, thank you for your suggestion. Certainly, I can always use a little extra income. I don’t know that I could quite go the distance that might be required for Penthouse, however. Though I suppose that a story about a woman who seduces her gay handyman could be an amusing thing to write or possibly even to read…maybe I could muster up my imagination…

    Now that I think about it, maybe it’s time I start thinking of a pseudonym.

  19. Megadittos all. My parents have been employing a variety of guys to build their house. Plumbers, electricians, and the like. They make buttloads of money: $50/hour. You can live like an Emperor in SW Ohio on that. Also, it’s hard to get guys who will show up. Lots of drug, alcohol, and relationship problems.

    So my dad thinks if you could get a number of skilled handymen together and they would 1) show up on time and 2) not look like Hell’s Angels or meth addicts, you’d make a killing.

    If I had it to do all over again I’d still get the worthless liberal arts degree. But I’d do plumbing or HVAC during the summer. We have this archaic class thing which sez you need to go to college. But all that stuff is going to be done by indians (the dot kind) anyway. And sitting in a cube sucks ass.

  20. No #*%t. I think back when I was happily tinkering on my old mustangs and chevy’s (i’m only 27) and my mother jaded me and asked do I just want to be a mechanic my whole life? Granted she cleaned houses and the liberal arts education was great, but come on. 5 years later I bust my balls and definitely don’t make $50 an hour. Meanwhile I fix my old car, my old house, and my old plumbing just to stay alive— and I love every minute of it. So should have done exactly what you said Brian….

  21. The article reminded me of one of the few, true, “practicing” libertarians (as opposed to the many “chattering” libertarians) I’ve encountered. I hope that some of you also had the opportunity to be with Karl Hess for a few hours. He made the honorable transition from political wordsmith to hillbilly welder, and never regretted it.

  22. Look at the magazine ads for I-forgot-which brand of cigarets from the early 1950s that profiled (in the Dewar’s sense) “The Thinking Man” concentrating on something while smoking their brand. In one case it was somebody playing chess, in another case somebody working on a car; I don’t remember others, but those were representative. No women, however.

    Then they were parodied in a Walter Lantz cartoon wherein the voice over asked, “Let’s see what the thinking man has to say about smoking.” The thinking man answered, “I don’t smoke.”

  23. “Dear Penthouse: I never thought I’d ever write a letter like this, but the other day I suffered a plumbing catastrophe when a compacted bolus of expired scrapple clogged my S-trap. Naturally, I called my friendly neighborhood handyman, who proved to be handier with his toooooooooool than I’d ever dreamed …”

    Now that I think about it, maybe it’s time I start thinking of a pseudonym.

    Ms. Van: To protect the innocent, you’ll have to think up a pseudonym for your handyman, too. May I suggest “Ted Tosterone”? I came up with that handle years ago, but never had call to use it.

    As for yourself, you probably won’t be referring to yourself much by name in your story, so you can just sign the letter “Eternally in Estrous in East Bay” or simply “Wanton” or some such.

  24. Sears still offers expanded diagrams of all their appliances and tools, they’re just online. See “The Parts Store” at
    http://www.sears.com/partsdirect — it’s one of the reasons I still like Kenmore products

  25. fyodor:

    There’s something odd about dragging Joni Mitchell into a manly-men thread, even one featuring gay handy-nurses.

    Kevin

  26. If your dominant public education system spends 60 years telling every student that the only way you’ll amount to a damn is if you go to college, then, everyone will eventually go to college rather than learn a trade.

    I’m not sure of reality but it certainly seems that you can’t find a skilled worker to do anything anymore. Which shows to go that if you want something done right you gotta do it your own self. Trouble is that TWC is getting too dang old to do it hisself anymore.

  27. So my dad thinks if you could get a number of skilled handymen together and they would 1) show up on time and 2) not look like Hell’s Angels or meth addicts, you’d make a killing.

    Hell, if you can manage to do that, they’ll give you your own cable TV show.

  28. You can also get tools for dang near any fastener from McMaster-carr (mcmaster.com), for the tinkerers out there.

    Pro Libertate, consider getting an electronic kit or two from electronics123.com; maybe it’s different for you, but I find it a lot easier to learn when I have an example to work with. It will give you soldering practice, and you’ll have that friggin’ laser beam up and running in no time!

  29. Thanks, D-FENS, I’ll check it out.

  30. This is pretty good stuff; I’d like to see more like this on the confluence of economics and anomie, as it were. But I think the distinction between “blue-collar skilled tradesman” and “white-collar office drone” is a little bit specious: I sit in an office in a downtown office building all day, but I’m still basically a craftsman, it’s just that my tools happen to be switches and servers, not jigs and braces. But yeah, you’re not going to get rich or find much personal satisfaction at it, any more than an assembly-line worker does, because as (most) white-collar workers at (most) American firms, that’s basically what you are: a glorified assembly-line worker.

    I also think that the whole “decline of skilled (manual) trades” has even more to do with industrialization than the author suggests. When it becomes cheaper to manufacture a new widget than to fix an old one, most of the incentive for there to even be widget-fixers goes away. And because producers are trying to optimize for production costs, not ease of later work, the widgets are made in such a way that they’re not easy to work on, maybe not even possible to work on. And as communication and shipping become cheaper, it becomes easier to have what manual labor you do need done elsewhere, where labor is cheaper. On top of all that, some American cities actively pursued anti-industrial policies in the 20th century (industry is dirty and low-paying! let’s drive them out and bring in nice clean high-tax-paying offices!) which didn’t help either.

  31. Stevo, you’re right. A silly pun would probably do just fine. I was thinking though, Penthouse is not really the right forum for this story. The average Penthouse reader is probably a fairly unadventurous and unimaginative straight male, and relating to my story would require him to assume the perspective of either a gay man or a straight woman — which in either direction is likely a bit of a stretch.

    “Ted Testosterone” works for me, and by the way, he does look fabulous in a blue collar as well as a tight, white cotton undershirt 😉

  32. I started to notice the decline of the “shade tree mechanic” as the 80s cruised into the 90s. It started when pollution controls on engines made it difficult for Joe Gearhead to tune his car by eye and ear. Then computer diagnostic equipment became the thing, and who was going to pop for that to keep the station wagon and the GTO in tune? When, in response to the Japanese manufacturer’s policies, Detroit started lengthening warranty periods, first on the drive train, then on all mechanicals, it became problematic to work on any but the oldest cars yourself. Fiddling with a car before the warranty had expired was a good way to void it. I can remember having to tell customers at the bookstore I worked at that Chilton and Haynes guides wouldn’t be available on some late model cars until they were 5 or 7 years old, because that’s when the warrantees expired. Then there were the cars using metric measurements, which meant buying a second set of tools. {Yeah, I know, real gearheads love an excuse to buy tools.} I only ran pre-1970 used cars back then, because they were built simply enough that my more mechanically ept friends and I could change the plugs and filters without an SAE certification.

    My high school was all college prep, so, while we had drafting/mechanical drawing, art and home ec, we had neither a metal nor a wood shop. We didn’t even have Driver’s Ed.

    The first time I took a piece of electronics in to get serviced and didn’t bother, this is what happened:

    Me: I think the doohickey needs fixing or replacing on this not-a-walkman.

    Electronics shop guy: Minimum labor charge is $29.00, plus parts.

    Me: I can get a new one for $20.00!

    ESG: So, get a new one.

    Treating stuff as disposable is a no brainer if repairs are more expensive than replacement.

    Kevin

  33. I started to notice the decline of the “shade tree mechanic” as the 80s cruised into the 90s. It started when pollution controls on engines made it difficult for Joe Gearhead to tune his car by eye and ear. Then computer diagnostic equipment became the thing, and who was going to pop for that to keep the station wagon and the GTO in tune? When, in response to the Japanese manufacturer’s policies, Detroit started lengthening warranty periods, first on the drive train, then on all mechanicals, it became problematic to work on any but the oldest cars yourself. Fiddling with a car before the warranty had expired was a good way to void it. I can remember having to tell customers at the bookstore I worked at that Chilton and Haynes guides wouldn’t be available on some late model cars until they were 5 or 7 years old, because that’s when the warrantees expired. Then there were the cars using metric measurements, which meant buying a second set of tools. {Yeah, I know, real gearheads love an excuse to buy tools.} I only ran pre-1970 used cars back then, because they were built simply enough that my more mechanically ept friends and I could change the plugs and filters without an SAE certification.

    My high school was all college prep, so, while we had drafting/mechanical drawing, art and home ec, we had neither a metal nor a wood shop. We didn’t even have Driver’s Ed.

    The first time I took a piece of electronics in to get serviced and didn’t bother, this is what happened:

    Me: I think the doohickey needs fixing or replacing on this not-a-walkman.

    Electronics shop guy: Minimum labor charge is $29.00, plus parts.

    Me: I can get a new one for $20.00!

    ESG: So, get a new one.

    Treating stuff as disposable is a no brainer if repairs are more expensive than replacement.

    Kevin

  34. This is relevant, I think.

    http://oilbath.blogspot.com/2006/09/todays-post-brought-to-you-by.html

    About how easy it is to find work with a CDL:

    “The best thing about having a CDL (commercial drivers license in case you forgot) is that you NEVER have to TRY to look for a job again. EVER! As long as you have at least 2 years verifiable experience, and have a clean enough record, it’s a slam dunk shooting fish in a barrel no brainer. Let me ask you this…how often do people cold call you and offer a 30-60 K/year position? I’m sure the answer for most of you is no. And the few of you who could retort with something like “60 K a year? ROFL thats a joke” or “in my field I’m in such demand…bla bla bla” let me ask you a follow up question; “Have you had at least 10 different employers in the last 3 years, and have you quit last minute and pulled no call/no shows on at least half of them?”

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