So, we’ve gone through the first half of the 20th century and built a mighty powerhouse of an economy on the backs of the trades. America had become the most powerful nation on earth in terms of both our military might and our economic strength. The money people earned with their “hands” allowed them to better their lives, the lives of their children and the lives of their communities at large, because “spreading it around” is what made things grow. We had the freedom to do what we wanted with that money. Taxes were low and confidence was high.
You don’t need to be an economist to appreciate the trickledown theory of monetary circulation. A guy that makes X number of dollars a week and has Y amount of disposable income spends that income on something that he might not truly need, but which he desires. The vendor who receives that disposable income then takes his profit from the sales does the same thing, and so forth and so on until the majority of the community benefits from the labor of the members of that community.
We get to the 1960s and things begin to change. Some say for the better, others, not so much. We develop a different attitude toward the blue collar trades, and so begins our downward spiral. There are many theories about why we have the problem with manpower today. The problem with theories is that most of the folks who postulate them haven’t the slightest idea of what the real world is like. The overarching results of replacing things that work with things that sound good is that most of those “good-sounding things” don’t work.
Somewhere between 1964 and today, the idea that a college education was the brass ring for every American became the litmus test for most of our education infrastructure. The more people who graduated and became educators themselves, the more ingrained the concept became, until finally it has become a complete waste of time, in terms of a viable income-producing life, to get most college degrees. Today’s educators in the secondary education system have about as much understanding of the trades and trade careers as most of us do about Quantum Mechanics, which is to say not very much at all.
How many of you know people who have degrees in such fields as environmental studies from some University of Something or Other? They probably carry about $80,000 in student loans and can’t find a job in their chosen field of study. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people in the country who have similar degrees which are almost worthless as far as making a living is concerned. Have we become so enamored of the “idea” of a college education that it has become a panacea with no correlation to the real world?
A recent Western Journalism blog by Gerald Todd sums up our present labor situation nicely: “Our children’s opportunity to learn based on technological advances has been more than offset by the loss of appreciation of literature and the humanities, including history, theology, philosophy and even economics.” I would humbly suggest he add “trade skills” to that list.
He goes on to state, what I believe is the crux of the problem, “With the prevailing attitude that every kid should go to college or he’s a loser, we’ve lost much of our ability to make things, provide employment for all skill and intellectual levels and to maintain infrastructure and beauty … I want my grandkids to think out of their own boxes before they get destroyed by academia and debt as they set their life goals.” That pretty much sums it up.
Political correctness, petty turf battles and the like have pretty much relegated the trades to a second tier role in the economy of our nation. The issues we as tradesmen face are nationwide and must be addressed at that level. Unfortunately it has become almost impossible to get any traction on a national level for a number of reasons. Most of those reasons are political, and when the whole house of cards begins to fall, in the end, it will be politics which will have to make things right.
To be sure, there are people in the industry who have been trying to get the problem in front of those who are in a position to make positive impact. The next installment of this series will showcase a few of those people and what they have been doing to try and get the attention this issue requires. These people and many more like them are the “canaries in the coal mine,” so to speak. As a group, we must make it a priority to shine a glaring spotlight on this issue, making as much noise as we can until we get the action we need, and must have, if we are to survive into this 21st century.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at[email protected].