Trading in the Cubicle

A rich and evocative article called “The Case for Working With Your Hands” appeared in the New York Times Magazine this week. The author, Matthew B. Crawford, left the world of the cubicle to run his own motorcycle repair shop. In so doing he was returning to a love of machines that had given him great pleasure as a teenager and young man –- a love suppressed for a number of years while Crawford trod the standard educational path to success.

It is precisely this path — often called a “track” — that Crawford asks us to reconsider:

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. …

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. … I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

Crawford recommends the trades for a number of reasons that cross from the economic to the social to the personal:

On the economic front, consider: Workers in the trades cannot be replaced by foreign workers. He quotes Princeton economist Alan Blinder “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.”  You can’t fix a car, unclog a drain, remove a dead tree, resize a ring, or replace a broken window over the Internet either.

Socially, every trade immerses its members inside a community with standards of excellence that help to shape the work ethic, and even the personal virtues, of those who practice it.  Of course, all professions help to shape and form those who practice them, but particularly in the trades, because they deal daily with brute physical reality, this formation is honest and grounded:

There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.

As the school year comes to a close around the country with college plans in upheaval for many due to the economic situation, perhaps these words from Crawford will be of comfort and even be a sign post to a different path.

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things.

Make. Build. Fix. Maybe that’s just what this country needs — more verbs, less verbiage.

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  • SMG 62

    I am so glad to see this article. My second oldest spent a very unhappy first year in college, not wanting to sit in a classroom, learning about something she didn’t want to do for a living, and racking up enormous debt. When she decided to withdraw there was a great deal of shock among relatives because of the mindset that this is everyone’s path: high school, college, work a few years, then get married. Lately, this path has started to include a master’s program as well. That’s great if you have a particular goal, but it should not be an automatic for everyone. I’m ordering a book that I think is worth a look. We don’t have to be so “by the book” in education so it’s great to get perspectives that can open up new ideas. The book is entitled The New Global Student: Skip the SAT, Save Thousands on Tuition, and Get a Truly Global Education.

  • Claire

    Very true. We will strongly encourage our son to live at home and attend the local community college to learn a trade, when he reaches college-age. We have not bought into the upper-middle class mentality that going away to private college is a birthright and essential to normal development.

  • steve p

    Mary, I read Crawford’s article too. This whole subject of manual/technical skills versus the push for universal college education is common among my friends, especilally the men. Too many people are in college who don’t want or need to be there, when they and society as a whole would be better served if they were getting trained in a skilled trade.

    I work in an office where some have degress and others come from clerical backgrounds. Some of the best people in the same position as me came up through the ranks from file clerk or secretary. They are good because they are hard working, ambitious and know the whole business from the ground up.

    When I was in college, working to pay my way, and restles, I decided that getting a degree in Theater Arts was just a better, more active, more fun way of getting a degree in English or History. You could get up from your desk and act it out.

    I then got a job as a cop. All my work until age forty kept me blessedly away from a desk.

  • yakinmol

    We need more voices and articles on this topic. It is so true and I have seen it manifested vividly in the lives of my in-laws.
    My father-in-law never went to school because he was the eldest of eight children and his father passed away at an early age. He had to assume the responsibility of supporting his mother and providing for the education and upbringing of his siblings. While his contemporaries went schooling, he worked as a servant, iron welder, furniture-maker, got into the Xeroxing business, then started companies making building materials.
    He is one of the most thoughtful men I know and very forward-thinking. That could only have come from a lifetime of listening to and interacting with different people in his lines of work. Today he is one of the most successful men of his generation, he has people with MBAs working at his companies and oh, many of his contemporaries who took the college-career route frequently come looking for financial help and guidance in learning how to change careers and start businesses.
    This is not an isolated case, we all know Bill Gates and Michael Dell had to drop out of college to get to where they are today. Former British Prime Minister John Major never went to college and for that matter neither did Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin conglomerate.

  • Les

    To some extent I agree with all the posters on the validity and worthiness of a trades career. I myself spent years in the field doing repairs on equipment, and to this day I still see myself as a repairman and tradesman even though I since obtained an engineering degree and now work in the high-tech industry (yes, sometimes in a cubicle).

    The problem with avoiding college and taking up a trade is that it limits your options when times in that trade get tough. Even though your college degree may not be in the field you are trying to enter, in many cases it’s a prerequisite just to get an interview. This is the situation that used to apply to a high school degree years ago.

    So, my advice to those who are not interested in climbing the professional or corporate ladder and would prefer a trades career is to go ahead and get a job in that trade, start learning it, but at the same time pursue a college degree – almost any degree. Colleges are becoming more flexible all the time in accommodating people with work schedules. Having those hours, and eventually that degree, does two things for you:
    1. Forces you to experience other educational disciplines you might not otherwise encounter. This is important in expanding your experience and mindset and can only serve you well later.
    2. Gives you options in the workplace both within your chosen trade as well as others, that you will not otherwise have.

    Once you get that experience and degree, then have at your chosen trade.

  • Stan Williams, Ph.D.

    If there is anything of lasting value any education can teach you it’s perseverance, communication, and research skills. In some respects, if you’re not sure what you want to do, it doesn’t matter what your major…at any level, just learn how to work hard, communicate well, and do your homework (research).

    I think everyone needs to be able to think and do. It’s like the left and right side of brain. Use both. Or understanding how the psychological and physical natures must work in concert. Or, to quote a pope, truth requires both faith and reason.

    No one with spatial skills (artists, athletics, construction workers) are good at it without head knowledge which continually improves. And no one with some head knowledge is worth even a minimal salary without the common sense that experience provides.

    We’re Catholic, it’s not either or, it’s BOTH-AND. Gates may not have finished college, but I guarantee you he’s read more and learned more than most Ph.D.s.