Mike Rowe on Trade Labor

Mike Rowe of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation this past Wednesday. The entire written testimony is worth reading. I can guarantee you that it contains the most heart-warming story of plumbing repair you’ll read all day.

I completely agree with everything he says. Even in a bleak economy with high unemployment rates, our country faces a shortage of skilled laborers (which actually started long before the economy tanked and certainly didn’t help prevent it). Rowe:

In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

We really need to re-orient our notion of success away from how much we have, how much we make, or how little we have to work for it. The subtext to the question So, what do you do? should be what do you do to help society?. Labor isn’t something to be ashamed of as a society nor is something we should considered relegated to those less worthy. The people who construct and repair our homes, our places of work, and our infrastructure the interface between life and civilization. It’s about time we started taking a lot more pride — as a society or country — in the class of professions that make it happen.

Perhaps this all sounds a bit hypocritical coming from a college educated guy and that’s fair enough. However, I do what I do because I love it. I’ve always been fascinated by building things and how things simply go together. So, as a product of my environment, I became an engineer and now a writer (about engineering software). But I still value every moment that I get to use my hands and some tools to make or fix something. As Rowe describes, those are some of the best memories I have and I know that I learn a lot when doing those projects. I also have learned to have a great deal of respect for those who do it for a living.

An analogy of where we — as a society — seem to value trade labor: the phrase chef to the stars seems like a reasonable (if not pretentious) thing to put on one’s business card or web site. However, electrician to the stars seems like a joke punchline (or possibly a new reality series on TLC, which I’d argue is the same thing). But, honestly, what is the difference between the two professions in terms of body of knowledge or skill sets? Both require years of experience, apprenticeships, and even formal training to master. But the idea of our kids becoming a chef seems to have more appeal than an electrician because, why, exactly? We’ve just somehow decided it’s not as worth and that needs to change.