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.