I come from a family of skilled tradesmen. My dad (who gratuitously labels himself ‘artsy and crafty’) has been a self-employed sign painter his entire working life, and both of my uncles (his brothers) work in the sign business as well. One owns his own sign fabrication shop, and the other has spent 25 years working for the same sign company.
I mention this in light of the widespread discussion of political scientist Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. Murray tackles what he characterizes as the unraveling American social fabric – symptoms of which are declining marriage, civic participation, religiosity, and industriousness. Though Murray discusses society as a whole, his book should be seen as a tome analyzing the issues that plague the men of this country. It doesn’t explicitly address men as does Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men” essay, but the book’s undercurrent is clearly preoccupied with what has often been labeled a men’s crisis. Part of Murray’s crusade involves reinvigorating the skilled trades, which are mostly occupied by men.
In an interview defending his book against criticism from the left and right, Murray tells the Daily Caller:
You can talk to any general contractor who tries to hire labor for construction, you can talk to just about any electrician or plumber or glazier or anybody else who wants to hire an assistant and they are willing to pay way above the minimum wage, they want to teach their craft to somebody, but they need somebody who will show up everyday on time and work hard. And you cannot find people in that position who will not tell you the same story, which is that you look at white guys — I’m not sure the story is different for black guys, but let’s stick with white guys — and you just can’t find them.
Murray confided that he “had several journalists, both broadcast and print, say to me that when they have gone out to do stories about the recession, and their objective is to portray guys out there desperately looking for work, and they can’t find it.”
This argument has been my dad’s hobbyhorse for the past 20 years. He had high hopes that I would someday go into the trades rather than go through the college gristmill. I grew up knowing all about paints, brushes, and different grades of sign board. I could have easily carried the family torch, but, like most young people, I didn’t want to commit to something like a trade. They are hard physical labor – sore backs and calloused hands – and they require an investment in specific skills and, often, a specific geographic location. People don’t hop around from trade to trade or plumbing company to plumbing company like they do in the corporate world. To commit to a trade is to sacrifice flexibility, and tradesmen – mechanics, air conditioner repairmen, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, sign painters, house painters, concrete pourers, door hangers, tile layers, carpet layers, welders, metal workers – most often forge their craft right in the prime of youth.
My dad constantly laments the lack of “good help”. He claims he can’t find guys who even know their way around a job site. And not just sign-specific tasks like blocking out billboards or using the right amount of paint thinner. Just general work skills like hammering a nail and not bitching about the heat or not texting while on the job. Not knowing how to work is one thing, but not knowing how to learn how to work is another.
This topic doesn’t come up much in the critiques of Murray’s book. It is now out of fashion to in any way criticize or hold accountable the jobless or the skill-less or the not-1% for any of the shortfalls from which they suffer. But the question needs to be asked, how much does a person have to sacrifice? How hard does a person have to push for work before they can complain about a lack of jobs or a lack of life purpose earned through work, which is the topic on which most critics of Murray’s book are pushing back?
Murray predicts the response:
To have even the lowest most menial job gave you status in the community compared to the guys who weren’t working,” he added. “And the fact that that has changed is exactly the point I’ve been trying to make. So don’t tell me demoralization explains anything. Demoralization is another word for a loss of industriousness.
I think it’s fair to suggest that the decline in the desire for trade work serves as a proxy for the decline in industriousness. Trades are hard work to commit to, but if we observe a marked decline in the desire to work in skilled trades then we’d expect a correlation in an overall decline in the desire to work in general. This puts the arguments against a dearth of jobs into context:
A recent survey by RIDGID, a leading supplier of professional grade tools, reveals that a scant 6 percent of high school students hope to have a future career in the skilled trades – defined as plumbers, carpenters, electricians, heating, ventilation or air conditioning installers, or repair people.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2014 the U.S. will need 29 percent more HVACR and 21 percent more plumbing technicians, a total of more than 100,000 skilled workers in the job pool. Among the 500,000 plumbers in the United States alone, the demand is expected to grow 10 percent by 2016, however, due to an aging generation of skilled professionals, more than a third of all plumbers – or approximately 167,000 workers – will be exiting the workforce.
“There is definitely a shortage of skilled plumbers,” said Brian Shields, owner of Brian Shields Plumbing Inc. “I’ve been a plumber for 20 years and there are no skilled plumbers in my area that I feel comfortable employing. I had to travel to another state to find someone who was willing to learn the trade. I’m one of a dying breed.”
Why has our industriousness down-shifted? The immediate answer is that fewer men want to do the work. But this still leaves us hanging: why do fewer men want have the desire?
There are plenty of hypotheses for this. Outsourcing, automation, and the increased presence of women in the workforce are some. But Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” and “Deadliest Catch” – two television programs which have done their part to re-glorify skilled trades and hard work – logged a YouTube video in which he essentially argued that these types of jobs are just not valued in society anymore. Hard work has become de-glorified. Rowe points out that the pop culture image of plumber is a 300 pound guy, usually with his butt crack hanging out. Such depictions have an impact on passive consumers of TV rays.
And then there is the cultural premium placed on college. Rowe points out that we call college “higher” education, as if to say that apprenticeships or vocational school isn’t admirable. College is glorified because that’s where the herd of young people moves creating the image that the trades are second-class or undesirable occupations. And in today’s society we have two forms of currency: dollars and cultural cachet. Entering the trades pushes someone out of the college social network loop. The trades are akin to still being on Myspace.
According to Rowe, such a cultural devaluation of this type of work has led to a situation where we have both high unemployment and a labor shortage. He reports a conversation he had with Department of Agriculture head Tom Vilsack who told him that one state governor had to halt construction of a nuclear plant because he couldn’t find enough welders to do the work.
So who or what has caused this? The individuals or the social milieu? It’s a multi-headed hydra, really. Individuals have lost the drive to work in these environments and to devote their lives to skilled trades – the bottom has fallen out. And from the top, people are being pulled away from these lines of work via snobbish attitudes towards hard labor. And we can hold the government somewhat accountable as it reallocated resources towards “higher” education in a way that is akin to microwaving a Thanksgiving turkey. As kids were pushed to college, the social center shifted away from other occupations. But step number one in putting it all back together again is to recognize that hard work and trades are bring dignity which can’t be measured in dollars or degrees.
—Photo Chris Yarzab/Flickr