Some of you may know Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs, a funny and poignant investigation of those jobs that believe it or not, someone actually does. Like a chick sexer, or the crew that replaces pumps at your sewage works. Rowe is one of those people who have respect for those who work with their hands and their brains.
Since Dirty Jobs is out of production, Rowe has continued with podcasts and posts on his site. Paraphrasing a lot, his consensus is this: We need tradespeople. University doesn’t produce tradespeople. Why go to university when you can earn as much, or sometimes more as a tradesperson? A good question that speaks to our society fixation on “get a degree and be set for life” That may have been true in 1954, but today, not so much.
My generation was one of the last, if not the last, to have “shop” class as part of the curricula. Starting in Grade 6, with Woodworking, you learned how to use a saw, a plane, spokeshave, clamps, glue, lathe, band saw, planer and router. You learned the species of woods, how to do a glue layup, use a table saw with a stacked dado-head cutter to do tongue and groove joinery and more. French polishing? Compounding stains? Oil finishes? Yes, yes and yes.
The next two years included, if you so desired, Metal shop. Yes, I can use a forge, anvil, hammer, flatter and tongs to make things, including forge welding. Gas weld, arc weld, and for the most advanced, MIG welding. How to grind, shape and pattern metal, layout, assembly, riveting the hard way and the easy way, plus how to set up and use a lathe and a Bridgeport vertical mill to produce things. We learned how to use a hammer and dollys to stretch and bump sheet metal as well as that hazard to fingers, the English Wheel to do compound curves.
By Grade 9 you were at least vaguely competent around machines and had a grasp of what hand tools could be used to do rudimentary tasks. You could fix things, like rewire a lamp with a proper Underwriter’s Knot because that was the way Mr. Bolton, or Mr. Dickie, or Mr. O’Brien taught you to do it: The proper, safe and correct way.
We were given an appreciation for trades. To this day, I can still sweat copper pipe, do electrical repairs, wiring and wood construction. My office in the basement is a testament to my shop teachers, in that it passed all inspections with flying colours and the occasional “Holy crap is that overbuilt or what?” from the inspectors. My usual answer is “I only want to do it once, the right way the first time and never have to worry about it again in this life.” This was usually followed by a sage nod from the inspector.
Do I do all my own work? An appreciation for the trades means knowing what you can and cannot do. Gas appliances I never touch. Electrical hookup, never. HVAC? Nothing more than changing filters. Those things need years of training, experience and licensing to do safely. Same with automobiles. I can do brakes, but won’t touch them. simply because if a licensed mechanic does it and messes up badly, my estate has somebody to take to court.
Which comes back to going to University for that Holy Grail of a four-year degree that would set you on a path to fiscal freedom forever. How’s that working out for those with a B.A. in Medieval Literature? Did all of you get your fully-tenured teaching positions at big dollar universities? Have you parleyed that gold-plated degree (and crushing student debt) into a paid-for house, new car, spouse, kids and high end vacations every winter?
The answer is, for the most part, no, followed by do you want whipped cream on your frap?
If we were to do it again, be assured it would be a three-year community college degree in Tool and Die making. The economy is constantly screaming for Tool and Die makers and after you graduate, you’re looking at six figures if you’re only vaguely competent, the industry is that short of people. If I were female and just out of high school, I’d be into a Tool and Die course in a New York minute. Female and a non-traditional job path? The only way you’d be let go would be if you took a dump on the boss’s desk.
The biggest bonus however is this: You can’t take your job home after 5 pm. Come quitting time, you slide down the brontosaurus, jump into the yabba-dabba-doo mobile and go home, forgetting about the job until 0900 the next day.
Yes, you can get dirty hands. Yes, you have to use your brains. Be it a plumber, pipefitter, carpenter, steelworker, plasterer, painter or any of the other ‘trades’ you can do something that very few people working can do: You can point to a pile of things or people and say, with pride: I did that, today. I made something, or made something better for someone else.
That is priceless.