Thoughts and advice on the care and feeding of fine automobiles from Machine Aficionado and bestselling author John Elder Robison, owner of JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts

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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 . . .


OkieRover said...

Nice post John. I've been in the trades for years, first a computer technician and now a systems analyst. I have returned to college but it is to assist me into the management arena. 47 is old to start back to school.

Anonymous said...

Early in my teaching career, there were LOTS of vocational programs to teach high school children trade skills. Somehow, all those programs have been shut down with the illusion that now everyone would go to college. So, the woodshops/metalshops have been shut down, the autoshops, the drafting classes. It's an absolute CRIME that young people are now denied access to that early exposure to alternative professions.

gsmac said...

This is something that Mike Rowe (of the TV show "Dirty Jobs") has taken on as his personal cause. He has an excellent web site supporting his "Mike Rowe Works Foundation" at that encourages the respect of tradespeople, and promotes the trades as a worthwhile and respectable profession.

Eric said...

I love this post John. When I was entering High School I was steered away from my love of working with cars by my guidance counselor and by my parents, they felt that I stood a better chance at a future by going to college. After a career in the Insurance business, my employer was sold out form under me, and I was forced to regroup. I now have my own landscaping business and can finally enjoy my first love, working on engines and my hobby of classic cars. I wish I had ignored my parents; friends of mine that went into auto-shop are now enjoying the fruits of their labors with longtime successful car repair businesses, and didn't have half the stress I did in the white collar field.

Justthisguy said...

OT, but I just tried to load the "look Me in the Eye" blog and saw that you'd taken it private. What's up with that?

John Elder Robison said...

Try it again; none of the blog is private.

James said...

Here is Tucson we had a real dearth of training available for the trades, and it was affecting local employers ability to find qualified people. It was really driving my electrician friend crazy that he could not find anyone. So a couple of years ago we passed a bond package for a "Joint Technical Education District".

I am a mechanical engineer who is very fortunate to work with an excellent group of mechanics and welders, so I make sure I treat them well.

S Rocks said...

Good post....thanks for sharing.. very useful for me i will bookmark this for my future needs. Thanks.

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