Sunday, December 11, 2011

Some thoughts on the trades

This weekend I finished another excellent book about our economy, and how we might recover from recession.  One of the suggestions was that we should become better educated, as a society.  To bolster that point, the author talked about college graduation rates, and the limited prospects for non-college-graduates who end up with low paying service jobs.

Where are the trades, in that writer’s mind?

I can just hear the answer now . . . Trades?  What are trades?

All too often, writers divide the world of work into “educated and professional” labor performed by college graduates, and “minimum wage service work” performed by the unwashed masses; those of us who did not make it out of college or perhaps even out of high school.

That depiction does a great disservice to our young people as they contemplate their future career paths.  For the trades still offer tremendous opportunity, and they are overlooked more and more today.

So what are the trades, you ask?  Trades are specialized jobs that are taught by doing.  People who work in the trades use both their hands and their minds to reason through problems and produce tangible results.  In years past you learned a trade by being an apprentice.  Today, you might learn a trade at a trade school, or academy.  And some apprentice programs still exist. 

Examples of trades are:

  • Carpenter, cabinetmaker, or framer
  • Auto, truck, or airplane mechanic or technician
  • Computer service technician
  • Medical equipment service technician
  • Plumber
  • Electrician
  • Heavy equipment operator

All of those jobs require substantial skill that is developed through both study and practice, and all have different levels.  One starts out at low wages as an apprentice, while masters make as much as most people in “professional” jobs.

The next step up from being a master is to own a small business that employs other tradesmen. Examples are my auto service company, or a local electrical contractor.  Owners of successful trade business can make as much or more money than even high-level professionals, like doctors or lawyers.

Yet the path to success in a trade does not generally pass through a college and it is often overlooked.

There are three hundred million people here in America.  It’s tradesmen who construct the places where we live.  Tradesmen bring us the electric power, and the plumbing.   Tradesmen fix our cars and trucks, and they restore that old jalopy we took on our first date.  They build those custom cabinets you always dreamed of in the study.  They bring town water to your cabin when the well ran dry.  The beauty of the trades is that they are not going anywhere.  No one is outsourcing those jobs to India or China.  

It’s true that the trades change.  The job of fixing cars has changed tremendously over the past twenty years, as has the job of wiring a house or even installing plumbing.  But everything changes.  We all have to learn and adapt.  Tradesmen may have a greater challenge, learning to adapt both hands and minds, but we do it and prosper.  

In some cases, fewer workers are needed in a given area.  Construction trades are a good example of that today.  With the housing collapse, we have a surplus of tradesmen who know how to work new construction.  Yet we still have jobs in other trades, like auto repair, and we even have jobs for carpenters, plumbers and electricians in repair and maintenance. 

I find working on things I can pick up and handle very satisfying.  I know many other tradesmen feel the same.  I like to fix something, see it work, and know it’s a job well done.  That sense of personal connection and satisfaction is missing in all too many jobs today.

Tradesmen of all kinds are what keep our world running.  When the lights go out, you don't call an investment banker.

So why are the trades overlooked and dismissed?  Maybe it’s time for a second glance . . .