Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft

Although most of my professional career was spent being what is euphemistically referred to as a “knowledge worker”, I have long held a great admiration for top-notch trades people, and have always had hands-on hobbies such as vehicle mechanics and cabinet making. And when I say top-notch I’m not talking about the robotic mechanic who simply replaces parts in accordance with the shop manual based on a wild-assed guess of what the problem might be or the readout from a $50,000 diagnostic instrument, but rather the “professional” tradesman who still has the ability to get the feel of a machine, understand what’s happening, and be able to affect repairs in the most timely, effective, and inexpensive manner. In other words, a thinker and problem solver.
I can thank my father for that. As a heavy equipment mechanic in a backwoods lumber operation in the 50s and 60s, he was one of the most creative mechanical problem solvers I have ever known. There was always a way, and given the scarcity and expense of parts and the frequent remoteness of the broken machine, that way more often than not would have made MacGyver proud. His was a hard act to follow, and I consider myself lucky to have picked up maybe as much as 50% of his skill in that arena. So nothing gets me more riled than a so-called mechanic who clearly doesn’t know if he’s been bored, punched, or countersunk. Or makes me happier than dealing with one who clearly knows what he’s about, what I’m about, and most importantly, what my particular piece of machinery is about.
Sadly, the former seem to be quickly outnumbering the latter as any young person today with a good head on his or her shoulders is automatically pushed into the academic stream so they too can become just one more knowledge worker occupying a cubicle somewhere for the next 40 years, contributing lots to the corporation’s bottom line, but precious little to society at large (and I know whereof I speak). Truth is, some of those very sharp minds would be happiest with greasy hands and black fingernails if we only gave them the opportunity and encouragement early enough to foster the joy of working with their hands. To do otherwise is just a waste.
And while I used the example of a mechanic, the same applies to any of the trades. I have an acquaintance who is an extremely accomplished cabinet maker who has given up on trying to grow his business because he can’t find young people who share his passion for creativity and hands-on work. Similarly our house builder was always struggling to find trades people who wanted to build the “best” house as opposed to “a” house. And the list can go on and on.
Shop Class as SoulcraftSo all that was a very long, rambling preamble to this book I just picked up. What first caught my eye was the photo of a very cool vintage BMW on the front cover. Then the title, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work, hooked me.
From the overleaf: “Based on his own experience as an electrician and mechanic, Crawford makes a case for the intrinsic satisfactions and cognitive challenges of manual work. The work of builders and mechanics is secure; it cannot be outsourced, and it cannot be made obsolete.”
The author is a motorcycle mechanic specialising in vintage bikes, but he didn’t start as that. He started with a PhD in political philosophy and a senior executive position with a Washington think tank. That lasted all of 5 months before he quit to open his bike shop.
It’s not an easy read (I blame his PhD for the fact the book has a fog index of approximately 14), but Crawford hits right at the core of something that is becoming a huge problem. I found myself repeatedly nodding in agreement or, to my wife’s chagrin, reading out chapter and verse accompanied by a “that’s what I’ve been saying all along” and getting the requisite “Yes dear” in response.
It’s not for everybody, but if you’ve ever considered the relative values of manual work versus brain work, Crawford very effectively challenges the conventional wisdom that working with one’s hands is somehow a lesser calling.

25 comments:

  1. Dear Canajun:

    The was a very clever book review, as defined by your interpretation of the "skilled" tradesman or mechanic. Did you coin the expression "fog index?" It doesn't really make any difference, as I am going to pirate it anyway.

    I've heard of this book before, but I intend to get it on your recommendation.

    Fondest regards,
    Jack • reep • Toad
    Twisted Roads

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  2. I went from manual labor to think work. Huge difference and getting some manual labor time in, on occassion, is almost as good as getting in a great ride.

    I whole hearted agree with the assessment that craftsmanship is becoming a lost art. That and customer servive seem to be from a long ago era.

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  3. Jack - Thanks for stopping by and your kind comments.

    No, I did not coin the term fog index. It's actually formally known as the Gunning fog index after it's developer who created a mathematical method to determine the relative readability of English writing. (Wikipedia has a good writeup) I'm sure he won't mind you stealing his idea. :D

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  4. AZHD - I expect your route is the far more common one.

    As for getting some manual labour in occasionally, I agree. There's a huge difference between being brain tired at the end of the day and muscle tired, and I much prefer muscle tired.

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  5. I enjoyed the book as well. It distresses me that the USA has become such a service economy now. We make very few products anymore.
    Very eloquent review of the book.

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  6. Canajun, great review - I have heard many good things about this book, and will be picking up a copy soon. I am with you - it's great to have an appreciation for how to really make things. I too am a "knowledge worker", and it seems that society has placed knowledge jobs on a higher rung than the craft/trade jobs, but when it really gets down to it, to actually be able to put something together is a noble vocation.

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  7. It's too bad that now days many folks who have manual labor type jobs get looked down upon instead of revered as very important members of society. They are what builds our society. Few to No desk jobs exist without tradespersons behind the scenes.

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  8. cpa3485 - Thanks for the comment - and it's not just the US. We're just as bad here. I think what we as a society are quickly figuring out (except for educators) is that if a service can be provided by wire there is no North American job security for it - the job will go to the low-cost provider who will nearly always be in a 3rd world country somewhere. We have to change our thinking.

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  9. Lance - Appreciate the comment. I think it goes back to that old white collar-blue collar thing where the shop managers wore the white shirts and the guys on the floor wore the work clothes (can't remember the brand, but they were ubiquitous in the 50s and 60s).
    It wasn't fair then and it isn't fair now.

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  10. Mr. M - You're right on. The desk may be built in China, the computer in Mexico, the software in India, but the building was built right here by Canadians/Americans. That will never change.

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  11. great review. i agree canajun, it is a hard read. but i find myself nodding in agreement quite often as a read through it too.

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  12. Ms M - Thanks!

    I must say I am surprised at the number of people who have read, or are planning to read, this book. Clearly Crawford's message has resonance. Now if only our educators were listening.

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  13. Your dad is sooo right. I grew up on the farm that my dad grew up on. And as your dad said it can be done. I learned that at an early age. In WW11 if something broke down and they had no parts it is said they'd ask who grew up on the farm. Thats cause the ol'farm boys could make it work.

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  14. WebsterWorld - I'd heard that too about looking for the farm boys during the War. And I can believe it.
    Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

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  15. I am a former journalist with a B.A. degree, now a master plumber, and I find the plumbing trade to be very mentally stimulating. I have been in the trade 10 years now and have never been bored; there is always something new to learn and it forces me to be creative in my work, even though I am mostly working with my hands.

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  16. Ken - Right on. If you take your trade seriously it can be far more stimulating than any desk job.
    Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

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  17. I enjoyed this post, I haven't seen the book but I am inspired to read it. I liked the reference to your Father as it closely applied to mine, one can only imagine the hardships they went through trying to keep things going without being able to order parts from the downtown or online store, being able to "make a plan" to keep the plant running be it in America or Rhodesia is what built character and country. I could go on about young people who only want to work at computers instead of with their hands.........but I wont!

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  18. Andrew - Thanks for the compliment.
    Certainly folks of our generation and that of our parents approached life in a far different way than many younger folks do today. Is that good or bad? I don't know as only time will tell - and we won't be around to worry about it.

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  19. I very much enjoyed this thoughtful post and MUST get this book. I stared my working life as an apprentice fitter/machinist and a decade and a half later ended up as a professional engineer and university lecturer. Without doubt, the practical experience (and having my balls engineers-blued by vengeful old tradesmen for being cheeky)made me a far better person!

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  20. Geoff - I don't think I'll pursue the "engineers-blued comment". :)
    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

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  21. A late friend of mine told me this story shortly after he retired from Lockheed Aircraft in the 1970's: "Some finance genius in management decided ten years back that they could save money by canceling the apprenticeship program at the machine shop. Now, every Monday morning the shop foreman walks out by the highway and holds a c-clamp up in the air. Anyone who calls out "It's a caliper!" gets hired as a machinist."

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  22. Doug - Probably more than a grain of truth in that story.
    Thanks for stopping by.

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  23. A excellent review for this book and I shall get it. I totally agree with what you're saying about blue versus white collar. Because the bright were just sent off to Universities instead of Trade schools (By encouragement, our industrial infrastructure has ceded way to imports and consequently to our current economic ills.

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  24. This is a fine piece of writing! I'm also in complete agreement with your conclusions. I live the Memphis TN area. The school system's moto here is "Every Child College Bound, Every Day". The first time I ready that ignorant phrase pasted on a banner I was instantly pissed. My immediate thought was....YEA? Who's going to fix my car? The fact of the matter is you don't need a college education to be a good craftsman. What you need is some natural talent and curiosity along with a good mentor.
    I too moved from working with my hands as a diesel mechanics apprentice to software developement. I completely understand and agree with your comments regarding "brain tired" and "muscle tired"
    Again, great writing!

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  25. CRASH - Thanks for the compliment! I was quite surprised by the response I have received to this piece. It just seems to resonate with so many people. Hopefully the pendulum will swing back towards a more balanced approach with this generation. If not, then "who will fix my car?" will become a very important question indeed.

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