Considering Working in the Trades

An NPR story from a year ago featured a student, Allison Hughes, who elected to forgo a standard 4-year college education and instead attend Bunker Hill Community College while apprenticing with NStar, a Massachusetts utility company.

While gaining her associates degree she was taking the required general education courses English, math, computer science, as well as the occupational specific courses in AC and DC theory, physics and engineering.  Her total annual expenses amount to $1,200. Once she finishes her coursework she will, in all likelihood, ply her skills with NStar. Yet, what makes others pause before following Allison’s path is the type of work she will be doing. In one of her apprenticeship sessions she was taught how to protect herself from an arc flash beneath a manhole cover in an underground electrical substation.

Trade labor can be dangerous—as noted above--dirty, disagreeable, and—perceived by some—as demeaning: it puts one on the vocational track—and that in itself is repugnant to many American families who want a future for themselves and their children that is filled with promise, challenge and rewards.

Yet, don’t discount the trades when it comes to promise, challenge and rewards. In the bestselling book, The Millionaire Next Door, the typical millionaire drives a pickup truck and has his own business in the trades. Further, In terms of opportunity, the demand for skilled electricians, as an example, is growing. More than half of the electricians in the US will be retiring over the next 10 years opening up over 300,000 positions. Despite apparent opportunity, many students wonder if they will find any intrinsic value in trade work.    

Matthew B. Crawford, a PhD from the University of Chicago, who once toiled in a think tank, and now tinkers in his customized motorcycle accessary shop in Richmond, VA addresses this very question in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft. Laboring as, say, a mechanic, “brings pride in meeting the aesthetic demands of an engine rebuild.” You do a job and your work exhibits your proficiency for all to judge. Quite frankly, if you’re incompetent it becomes obvious immediately. Work isn’t a function of ‘celebrating potential rather than achievement;’ it’s all about what you have produced.   

Others discount the ‘cognitive demands’ of manual work. Mike Rose of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education in his groundbreaking book, The Mind of Work, carefully documents how certain types of work, such as carpentry requires planning, thinking through the job, anticipating problems, attending to details and working methodically. All are attributes found in many white collar job descriptions.  

Some become fixated on whether they are working in a white collar or blue collar job. Mr. Crawford notes that such labels really don’t matter all that much any longer. While call center workers are considered white collar, mechanics, blue collar workers, are generally considered more indispensable. After all, it’s very difficult to fix cars over the web.

The true visceral pleasure gained from working in the trades, say as a welder, is a sense of self-directed labor while approaching a job with ingenuity and time tested expertise. Welding with its mathematical calculations, symbols for types of welds, standards and codes all become embedded in the weld itself. An expert welder develops his or her own style and approach, much like a jazz trumpeter develops a voice: distinctively unique.

Obviously, no article is going to convince someone to forsake the well-worn college preparation path for a career in the trades. It just might be useful to know that there are alternative paths in finding pride, independence, and a strong sense of self-reliance through work. One can join the likes of Ray and the late Tom Magliozzi, both MIT graduates who worked as mechanics in their Good News Garage and were featured on NPR’s Car Talk. It might mean cutting your connection to a computer in a cubicle and picking up a wrench--a novel direction that might prove immeasurably rewarding.