Doing Stuff with Your Hands vs. Doing Stuff with Your Mouth

You can call it what you like — blue collar vs. white collar; trade vs. profession; making things vs. selling things — but to me, the clearest way to divide occupations is this:

Do you do stuff with your hands — like build things or fix things or smash things or screw things onto other things — or do you do stuff with your mouth — like sell things or say things on paper or argue things or say things on the telephone?

People who work in the skilled trades mostly do stuff with their hands. People who work in journalism or banking or other “white collar” jobs mostly do stuff with their mouths.

(Yeah, I know: writing is done by hand. But really, journalism and the like are talking professions.)

There are an awful lot of Americans, these days, who do stuff with their mouths. Not so many who do stuff with their hands. And that’s a big problem. From the Wall Street Journal:

Even as the economy slumps and unemployment rises, strong demand for power plants, oil refineries and export goods has many manufacturers and construction contractors scrambling to find enough skilled workers to plug current and future holes.With the shortage of welders, pipe fitters and other high-demand workers likely to get worse as more of them reach retirement age, unions, construction contractors and other businesses are trying to figure out how to attract more young people to those fields.

By 2012, demand in fields like welding is expected to exceed supply.Their challenge: overcoming the perception that blue-collar trades offer less status, money and chance for advancement than white-collar jobs, and that college is the best investment for everyone.

And the always bracing Camille Paglia rings in here, in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Having taught in art schools for most of my four decades in the classroom, I am used to having students who work with their hands—ceramicists, weavers, woodworkers, metal smiths, jazz drummers. There is a calm, centered, Zen-like engagement with the physical world in their lives. In contrast, I see glib, cynical, neurotic elite-school graduates roiling everywhere in journalism and the media. They have been ill-served by their trendy, word-centered educations.

Jobs, jobs, jobs: We need a sweeping revalorization of the trades. The pressuring of middle-class young people into officebound, paper-pushing jobs is cruelly shortsighted. Concrete manual skills, once gained through the master-apprentice alliance in guilds, build a secure identity. Our present educational system defers credentialing and maturity for too long. When middle-class graduates in their mid-20s are just stepping on the bottom rung of the professional career ladder, many of their working-class peers are already self-supporting and married with young children.

And she winds up this way:

In a period of global economic turmoil, with manufacturing jobs migrating overseas and service-sector jobs diminishing in availability and prestige, educators whose salaries are paid by hopeful parents have an obligation to think in practical terms about the destinies of their charges…every four-year college or university should forge a reciprocal relationship with regional trade schools.

I’d love to see that! The Yale University School of Art & Architecture & Plumbing. The Harvard School of Business and Finish Carpentry. The College of Welding and Sociology at Princeton.

  1. ManBearPig

    Read this book. I recomended it to Mr. Robinson when he was dealing with his leaky refrigerator.

  2. Duane Oyen

    I think the issue is less working now with your hands than:

    1) Having any kind of history of hands-on work, and a consequent understanding of what it means to do so; and

    2) Keeping the consideration of those who still do at the forefront of policy proposals and decisions.

    The problem we have now is that no one in Washington does so, except as an automatic response to instructions from organized labor leaders (whose workers, by and large, no longer work with their hands either).

  3. Trace

    Really? Camille Paglia hanging out with weavers and she is now an economics expert? “I was going to go into investment banking but then I learned how much unmet capacity there was in welding — I really had no idea — and so I went that direction instead.”

    This is condescending nonsense. The juxtaposition of zen-like weavers and smug, neurotic Ivy-league comparative-lit majors almost torpedos the sense of her point. This has nothing to do with the fancy (and I’m sure obnoxious) would-be mouth-workers that flock to her graduate seminars.

    But there is truth here, which is that there are lots of J.C. and community college students pursuing an associate degree in “business” or “communications” that have been oversold on the benefits of a “college degree.” And yes, more vocational training and fewer temps-to-perm would be a positive for the economy. And yes, I agree that one of the issues is the stigma associated with vocational education in the first place.

    So I guess if it takes Camille Paglia to make welding cool (you know, calm and Zen-like — like weaving,) then I suppose she’s performing a service, however much it grates.

  4. Denise Moss
    C

    Rob,

    This couldn’t be more true today. College grads with Humanties Degrees and even some with law degrees, are not finding jobs. But damn, if I don’t love a great, honest plumber. And automotive repair is a computer science now. This emphasis on everyone going to college is a waste of time, talent and beer.

  5. Maura Pennington
    C

    I wouldn’t totally blame the education system for failing to promote more practical employment. My college required us to take lab sciences and math courses — it’s not their fault if I don’t want to do anything with them. I would, however, blame schools for the proliferation of nonsense degrees (women and gender studies, comparative literature, anything that thinks “criticism” is a field of study). My grandmother and mother were Home Ec majors. Even though it seems like a joke by today’s standards, they started their adult lives with practical skills AND a college diploma. Maybe adding welding to Art History wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

  6. Aaron Miller

    Learning to weld in an air-conditioned school garage during the fall semester doesn’t prepare you for welding in a giant aluminum warehouse during the middle of summer. I enjoy working outside with my hands sometimes, but let’s not pretend most physical labor is woodworking in the shade with a glass of lemonade and no manager barking about the time.

  7. Michael Tee
    Aaron Miller: Learning to weld in an air-conditioned school garage during the fall semester doesn’t prepare you for welding in a giant aluminum warehouse during the middle of summer.· Sep 1 at 1:22pm

    Edited on Sep 01 at 01:23 pm

    Agreed.

    Welding is hard. You have to weld all the time in order to produce a stack of dimes when joining two pieces of metal. Machining is also hard; 90% of the job isn’t cutting metal, it’s setting something up so you can cut it.

    It never fails to amaze me how some folks who sit at computers for a living have no respect or real concept for what a good skilled laborer does.

    One issue with employment of the skilled labor force is that of unions. But that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. E.G. Who wants to build cars when Jimmy who has been on the line for 20 years makes way more money than you, but is an adequate welder at best?

  8. Trace
    Michael Tee JC and CC? Try State University and the Ivy League. I would say there’s a plurality of my students who should not be in college at all. · Sep 1 at 12:07pm

    I’m someone that basically makes his living explaining the value of vocational education to folks that graduated from Ivy League schools, but I have to cry foul here.

    Any kid that gets into an Ivy League school (or even a state university) these days deserves to be there — and probably should also be engaged in what we call knowledge work (even if they might also be lazy and spoiled.)

    As a group we are forever extolling the virtues of the free market. I believe the market is capable of sorting out labor imbalances better than Ms Paglia (or Dept. of Labor statisticians for that matter,) and at the point when we are so short of welders that they are earning more than lawyers and television producers — well then you can be sure plenty of bright, capable young people will be forgoing Harvard and Yale for welding school.

  9. Rob Long
    C
    Aaron Miller:…let’s not pretend most physical labor is woodworking in the shade with a glass of lemonade and no manager barking about the time. · Sep 1 at 1:22pm

    Edited on Sep 01 at 01:23 pm

    Nicely put. Of course, I usually say something similar, about writing. It’s not all pipe-smoking and tweed-jacket-with-elbow-patches. It’s hard and it often hurts my head.

    I guess what I’m driving at is how easily we decided as a culture that some jobs were prestigious and some weren’t. And that some had big economic payoffs and some didn’t. Which has turned out to be a mistake, as we now can see, when an economic recovery is stalled by a shortage of skilled tradespeople, among other things.

  10. Michael Tee
    Trace Urdan

    I’m someone that basically makes his living explaining the value of vocational education to folks that graduated from Ivy League schools, but I have to cry foul here.

    As a group we are forever extolling the virtues of the free market. I believe the market is capable of sorting out labor imbalances better than Ms Paglia (or Dept. of Labor statisticians for that matter,) and at the point when we are so short of welders that they are earning more than lawyers and television producers — well then you can be sure plenty of bright, capable young people will be forgoing Harvard and Yale for welding school. · Sep 1 at 2:40pm

    Edited on Sep 01 at 02:41 pm

    Oh, there’s much to disagree with here. First, it’s been my experience that many students at University cannot form a complete sentence. They cannot compute, much less do simple calculus. I’d suggest some of the reasons for this, but space is limited and others have done better. Second, would you be comfortable with no welders or machinists in the U.S. if that’s what the market dictated?

  11. Trace
    Michael Tee

    First, it’s been my experience that many students at University cannot form a complete sentence. They cannot compute, much less do simple calculus.

    Second, would you be comfortable with no welders or machinists in the U.S. if that’s what the market dictated? · Sep 1 at 3:02pm

    Michael — I’m personally acquainted with many great minds that cannot do simple calculus. I’m not going to name names mind you, but some may even be Contributors to Ricochet. It all depends on which “university,” you mean but competition being what it is among the population bubble of Gen Y, it’s very difficult to get into a name school as an absolute idiot unless you are perhaps an idiot virtuoso Cellist or football player.

    On your second point you are describing an unrealistic hypothetical. But sure, I’d be fine with it. What I’m not fine with is the President’s Council on Welding Preservation that would grant special subsidies to schools for welding programs and national campaigns with Woody the Welder traveling with the Sect”y of Education to promote skilled trades to second graders so they feel better about the profession.

  12. Trace
    Rob Long I guess what I’m driving at is how easily we decided as a culture that some jobs were prestigious and some weren’t. And that some had big economic payoffs and some didn’t. Which has turned out to be a mistake, as we now can see, when an economic recovery is stalled by a shortage of skilled tradespeople, among other things. · Sep 1 at 2:4

    Is the shortage of skilled tradespeople really about misplaced snobbery regarding blue collar work? Is it another value we lost as a society in the sixties? Or could it be something else that has distorted the skilled trade labor market.

    Hmm. Let me think.

    What could have distorted the costs of employing skilled tradesmen, created unsustainable long-term liabilities for employers and forced more off-shoring of basic manufacturing tasks, created barriers to entry for the trade, and generally resulted in a fundamental labor imbalance. Anyone on Ricochet know? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Kenneth?

  13. Mark Wilson
    Trace Urdan

    Michael Tee

    Second, would you be comfortable with no welders or machinists in the U.S. if that’s what the market dictated? · Sep 1 at 3:02pm

    On your second point you are describing an unrealistic hypothetical. But sure, I’d be fine with it. What I’m not fine with is the President’s Council on Welding Preservation that would grant special subsidies to schools for welding programs and national campaigns with Woody the Welder traveling with the Sect”y of Education to promote skilled trades to second graders so they feel better about the profession. · Sep 1 at 3:20pm

    I’m a strong free market guy, but I would not be ok with this, because it is a national security issue. We have to be able manufacture military and intelligence hardware domestically. Maybe that means there will always be a domestic market for it, even if it is created solely by government contracts.

  14. Kenneth
    Trace Urdan

    Is the shortage of skilled tradespeople really about misplaced snobbery regarding blue collar work? Is it another value we lost as a society in the sixties? Or could it be something else that has distorted the skilled trade labor market.

    Hmm. Let me think.

    What could have distorted the costs of employing skilled tradesmen, created unsustainable long-term liabilities for employers and forced more off-shoring of basic manufacturing tasks, created barriers to entry for the trade, and generally resulted in a fundamental labor imbalance. Anyone on Ricochet know? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Kenneth? · Sep 1 at 3:29pm

    Huh? What?

    Oh, I’m sorry, Trace, I’m still stunned by the headline here. Rob’s on a tear today: first it’s “Grab This”, then it’s the Hand/Mouth thing and on to “Smash My Face”.

    But to answer your question: the Wagner Act, 1935.

  15. EJHill

    You want to hear this put superbly? Mike Rowe, the host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs. I usually find the speakers at TED.com a wee bit too pretentious and too liberal, but he makes the case for manual labor.

  16. Michael Tee
    Trace Urdan

    Michael — I’m personally acquainted with many great minds that cannot do simple calculus. I’m not going to name names mind you, but some may even be Contributors to Ricochet. It all depends on which “university,” you mean but competition being what it is among the population bubble of Gen Y, it’s very difficult to get into a name school as an absolute idiot unless you are perhaps an idiot virtuoso Cellist or football player.

    Ooh, you’ve never been on an admissions committee! It is very easy for “underperformers” to get into a University, and the higher up you go, the easier it is. Three words: Legacies, Diversity and Tuition.

    Don’t get me started on the dumbing down of the SAT and the ACT or the grade inflation that occurs in public high schools, especially those in posh neighborhoods.

    I would also suggest that most everyone on this board did simple calculus at some point. High school physics, for example, contains rudimentary calculus.

  17. EJHill
    Michael Tee I would also suggest that most everyone on this board did simple calculus at some point.

    I wish. I was in public school in the 1970′s during the great swing to the dumb-down. My kids learn more now in middle school than was required in my high school.

  18. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Kenneth

    Trace Urdan

    Is the shortage of skilled tradespeople really about misplaced snobbery regarding blue collar work? Is it another value we lost as a society in the sixties? Or could it be something else that has distorted the skilled trade labor market.

    Hmm. Let me think.

    What could have distorted the costs of employing skilled tradesmen, created unsustainable long-term liabilities for employers and forced more off-shoring of basic manufacturing tasks, created barriers to entry for the trade, and generally resulted in a fundamental labor imbalance. Anyone on Ricochet know? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Kenneth? · Sep 1 at 3:29pm

    Huh? What?

    Oh, I’m sorry, Trace, I’m still stunned by the headline here. Rob’s on a tear today: first it’s “Grab This”, then it’s the Hand/Mouth thing and on to “Smash My Face”.

    But to answer your question: the Wagner Act, 1935. · Sep 1 at 4:30pm

    Yes, Kenneth. Very good. You get to go to the head of the class.

    Now only if we could also get your mind out of the gutter — but you’ll do your best to be a lost cause in that respect, I’m sure.

  19. Kenneth
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Kenneth

    Huh? What?

    Oh, I’m sorry, Trace, I’m still stunned by the headline here. Rob’s on a tear today: first it’s “Grab This”, then it’s the Hand/Mouth thing and on to “Smash My Face”.

    But to answer your question: the Wagner Act, 1935. · Sep 1 at 4:30pm

    Yes, Kenneth. Very good. You get to go to the head of the class.

    Now only if we could also get your mind out of the gutter — but you’ll do your best to be a lost cause in that respect, I’m sure. · Sep 1 at 5:07pm

    So Rob decided to work blue today and it’s….my fault?

  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Kenneth

    So Rob decided to work blue today and it’s….my fault? · Sep 1 at 5:14pm

    Naturally. When Claire graced us with Ricochet’s Only Conspiracy-Theory Airing Opportunity, I forgot to mention the gigantic “Blame Kenneth” conspiracy.

    According to this theory, everything’s your fault, or at least we’re all conspiring to make it appear that way.

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