There’s Work Aplenty in the Trades, but Stigma Abounds

01/12/2018 05:26 pm ET
There’s a severe shortage of skilled labor, from carpenters to steel fitters.
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There’s a severe shortage of skilled labor, from carpenters to steel fitters.

Horace Greeley, founder and editor of The New York Tribune, said, “Go west, young man, and grow with the country.”

In the movie “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman is advised to go into “plastics.” Nowadays, young men and women are being advised to go into the “trades”: There’s work for people who can weld, read a grade level, work a lathe or follow site drawings.

There’s a severe shortage of skilled labor, from carpenters to steel fitters. And it’s beginning to be a brake on the economy.

Some are heeding the call. One young man who grew up in San Francisco, call him Jeremy, whose parents are college-educated (his mother is an Ivy League college graduate), has decided he’ll forgo college — although his parents can well afford it — and become a welder. Bravo!

But the road to a happy life through the trades hasn’t been cleared of the debris left by our passion for college degrees. The aspiring young welder and hundreds of thousands of others who’ll be tempted to give up the pleasures of four years in college for the rigors of as many or more years in an apprenticeship will likely find themselves marked for life as “second rate.”

Jeremy can find work aplenty in today’s job market and good wages, too. But he’ll be binding himself to a world where many will look down on him; where the values of his upbringing are scarce in the workplace, with its dictatorial foremen and rough-and-ready society; where he’ll have a sense, ever present, of being low on the social and work totem pole; and where he’ll encounter many closed doors if he wants to leave welding for some other kind of work.

Jeremy or an equivalent young woman, call her Jane, could leave welding as their interest declined or simply because, with the passage of years, he or she couldn’t handle the physical demands of the trade. But what to do? With a wealth of experience, how about teaching? No way with no degree.

Supposing Jane, at age 25, decides that she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life in a world of arcs and acetylene, burns and fumes. She’s young enough to learn to fly and become a pilot. But she’ll never fly for an airline: They require pilots to have a college degree of some sort. Management in a hotel chain? Not as such. They like degrees for anything above housekeeper or waiter.

Jeremy and Jane will come up against the “mortar board ceiling,” as I’ve called it. I know many who’ve bumped up against it. A useless degree from a mediocre college is still better than great life experience when it comes to career.

When I arrived in the United States from Britain, I hit my head on the mortar board ceiling many times. Although I had worked for ITN and the BBC in England, I couldn’t get an interview with a U.S. television network on the grounds I didn’t have a college degree. The human resources departments were adamant.

Insanely, The New York Times told me that I’d never be a writer on the paper, but they had an opening for an editor. I went, almost literally, around the block to The Herald Tribune and signed on there as a rewrite man on the foreign desk. They didn’t ask and I didn’t tell.

It’s important that people going into artisan work, for all of its camaraderie and job fulfillment satisfaction, know that it’s still fair weather work. Little or no sick leave, no lifetime guarantees and pension, unless it is a union job. You clock in and clock out: the devil take the hindmost.

Time was when the trades offered a future: A meat cutter could open a butcher shop and become self-employed, a baker a bakery, etc. That line of entrepreneurship is essentially foreclosed in today’s winner-take-all world of big companies.

But mostly, Jeremy and Jane need to know that the future for the non-college worker is still inferior. Society still looks down on the horny-handed sons and daughters of toil — and there’s no change in sight. Meanwhile, we’ll have too many graduates and too few people who can build and repair.

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