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Working With Your Hands

As a boy, I loved to watch my Pop working in his shed, he was a carpenter by trade, and a good one at that. The skilled handling of timber and tools to create usable or functional items, or homes for people to live in was a skill I was in awe of. The smell of the sawdust, the feel of the ear muffs, the whir of the table saw, it was a joy to watch this strong man use his hands to create. I loved the fat pencils used with a square to line up cut marks, and the fact that he would let me into his working world. I would travel to worksites, sitting in the old Kingswood stationwagon, ham sandwich in a bag along with my Pop’s, packed by his loving wife. He was great with his workers, everyone respected him. I never aspired to be a carpenter, but I respected his ability, and the skills of the trade. His skill was far superior to the labourer on modern day subdivision housing sites, which barely represents carpentry as an art, rather more like painting by numbers.

Today I work as an Engineer and a Designer, solving peoples problems, creating designs, and managing the workflow of a team of technical staff. Most of what I do is far removed from the reality of construction, sitting in front of a high powered computer, manipulating pixels that represent surfaces, kerb lines, lot boundaries or pipes, and producing a design that meets council’s and the client’s needs and wants. Sometimes it is simple, but more often than not there is a critical aspect of the project that requires serious thought, a problem that doesn’t fit or meet the guidelines or rules head-on. Thankfully, I’ve had enough experience in the field with hands-on construction to know how things are meant to fit together, some people see the years I spent away from university as time wasted, I see it as gaining valuable life skills.

Today I read a (long) article about the demise of skilled labour, I’ll extract some of the quotes I found most interesting, and make some comments.

What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part.
So perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity

costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past. But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.

One of the interesting ideas coming out of the article is the issue of manufacturing jobs leaving our shores for Asia at an ever increasing rate, yet manual trades are still urgently required to keep our society running and keep our standard of living high.  If your car breaks, you don’t want to have to send it to China to get it fixed, you need a knowledgable local mechanic, if your pipes need fixing, you want a good plumber.  Likewise, software and faster computers don’t always make for a better product in engineering, rather they just mean that more can be done in a shorter time, or more revisions of the design can be acomplished in the same time, actually promoting a decline in design standard from previous ages through the process.

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.

And this is the key to creating an empowering engineering workplace, link the efforts of your technical staff to the final product.  Show them the subdivision, show them the rebar being hidden under the flow of concrete, relate the work to the plans. If the technical staff are not familiar with the construction process, show them what part their product plays in the creation of the final product.  Show them that their craftsmanship matters.

Too often today in Engineering fields managers and aspiring managers have little or no experience in the real world of their industry, when I first worked as a graduate I had an excellent manager, now retired, who was an expert in the selection application and installation of pumps and valves, particularly in the water and wastewater industry, his expertise came from an old school approach to learning and practice that is rarely appreciated today. Certainly the idea of being proficient with your hands is at odds with today’s attitudes of consumerism and “she’ll be right”.

How do we return to a culture and society that values working with our hands?  The article I’ve linked to doesn’t answer this question, but it give plenty of food for thought, giving a good social and historical perspective of how we ended up here, and what the consequences are.

Is our current trajectory of building up knowledge workers at the expense of skilled laborers at all sustainable?

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Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.