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By Jack Ganssle

Learning a Trade

Published 10/09/2006

As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast the University of New Orleans ordered a mandatory evacuation of all students. My son escaped, and when the extent of the destruction of that poor city became apparent he returned home for a semester, working part-time as a mason's apprentice. Over the recent summer break the work went to full time.

Though exhausted at the end of each work day he liked the work, taking great satisfaction in bricking up a wall or setting stones in a useful and elegant way. It also helped him appreciate the physically-easier intellectual life of studying math and physics so much more. By the end of the summer he was a capable bricklayer, having acquired a skill that will never be offshored and one that will always be in demand.

Today's vocational schools teach trade skills of all sorts. Unfortunately some youngsters and professors in these institutions have the deluded belief that networking and Microsoft-certification are also worthy trades, so these skills are taught alongside plumbing and cosmetology. Networking is, I suspect, one of those transient occupations that will disappear when some as-yet-uninvented wireless technology replaces Ethernet. Networking hardware will be totally integrated in computers and self-configuring. Those networking and similar infotech "trades" will disappear.

But plumbing will never go away. Nor will the demand for electricians, masons, and hair-cutters. There are many sorts of skilled hands-on services that will continue to be outsourced to local merchants and entrepreneurs. Recessions will come and go; wages and employment will fluctuate, but in general these trades will flourish.

Engineers, too, will always be needed, but the increasing level of specialization means that we professionals are not as fungible as tradesmen. When the industry enters one of its periodic retractions a semiconductor process engineer won't find work in ASIC design. DSP firmware specialists will have a hard time snagging that RF design job. Today's techie resume contains a blizzard of acronyms that recruiters mindlessly match against a job's requirements. Miss the match and you don't get the position. This is not new; my Dad, an early space pioneer, tells me of an engineer who was the world's expert at designing wheels for lunar roving vehicles at Grumman in the 1960s. Where did that fellow get a job when Apollo imploded in 1970?

But a plumber can work on pipes anywhere.

A recent interesting though long article (http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/13/crawford.htm) posits that trade work is something bigger than mind-numbing Carpal-Tunnel inducing repetition. Manual competence elevates us, makes us the masters of our domains. The use of tools (physical tools, not IDEs) helps us understand the physical world. I remember working in a machine shop as a kid; one grizzled old machinist picked up on my interest in becoming an engineer and warned me repeatedly: "don't be one of them engineers what designs stuff that can't be built." Indeed, in my career I've noticed that engineers who once worked as technicians have a more visceral sense of electronics than those who haven't.

Though college-educated information employees often look down on blue collar workers, the fact is that more of them run their own businesses than we do. They're more likely to be millionaires. One wonders if tradespeople are happier than office workers, if they use less Prozac, Viagra and all of the other little pills so vigorously flogged by Madison Avenue.

The article referenced above concludes by recommending we advise college-bound students to pursue their education, but to study broadly. And then to work summers at a trade.

That's not bad advice.