The Art of the Industrial

A few weeks ago, my wife asked our sons if they wanted to move to Denver for the summer. Jobs, she said, are plentiful if you’re willing to swing a hammer, climb on a roof, or lay some bricks.

It’s no secret that we’re facing a shortage of construction workers across America. Tradesman International points out that nearly 80% of construction businesses are having a hard time finding workers. Most major cities are experiencing construction slowdowns simply because there aren’t enough skilled (or even unskilled) workers willing to take the jobs available. Home buyers and business feel the impact as construction costs rise, buildings take longer to frame and finish out, and builders can’t maximize profits because they are forced to take on fewer jobs.

And heaven help home owners searching for a contractor to perform relatively small remodel jobs. While I’m sure Home Depot and Lowes appreciate a skilled worker shortage that forces home owners to attempt various DIY projects (and then re-do the DIY project after the tile is crooked, the door falls off its hinges, or the sink sprays water to the ceiling), it seems to me we’re reaching a critical point where we don’t quite appreciate the art of the industrial.

Understand that I don’t think the emphasis on a college-degree or college-ready high school programs and skilled trades are mutually exclusive. There’s no reason we can’t have philosophers who can weld (or welders who are philosophers for that matter).

I realize that the shortage of workers is caused by some complex factors. We know, for instance, that many potential construction workers will choose oil field work over framing houses. I suspect, and this is a subject for another day, that the demise and demonization of unions has had a negative impact on skilled workers’ earning potential. It’s also fair to recognize the cultural shift that’s taken place over time. Many parents who did hard, grueling blue-collar construction jobs did so hoping to create more white-collar opportunities for their children. For an entire generation, sending your kids to school was a way to show you and yours were as good as anyone else. Those issues and ideas are no small things. The lure of indoor work and air conditioning aren’t to be dismissed lightly.

Stand by Me

Click and go to 1:17: “We’ll be in the shop courses with the rest of the retards making ash trays and bird houses.”

But I think it’s also fair to say that we’ve done a pretty fair job of hiding the value of the industrial arts. There’s no doubt that 30 years ago, “shop” classes were often viewed by school administrators as a kind of dumping ground for kids who weren’t “college material,” a kind of code filled with racial, economic, gender, and other covert biases. You didn’t often find the bank president’s son or daughter learning how to be a mechanic.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case in education, we decided to throw the baby out with the bath water and phase out industrial arts classes, shop classes, and other trade specific programs.

And here we sit. Builders can’t find bricklayers and the rest of us have to wait a three months for a contractor to bid on a kitchen remodel (and six months for her to finish the job).

At the risk of sounding naive or offering a simplistic solution to a complex problem, I wonder why we don’t reinvest in industrial arts classes and make those classes a mandatory part of the curriculum in junior high and high school. Doing so would show our students that we value the skills learned and, most importantly, expose entire generations, regardless of race, gender, or economic status, to basic skills that complement reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students who want to work with their hands would have a viable path toward a career choice just like those students who want to study finance, education,  medicine, or the liberal arts. As importantly, students who might never consider the craft of drafting, the importance of wood grain, or the dangers of acetylene would have a chance to understand the complexity of skill required to build something. Algebra is complicated and hard, but so is framing windows for a house.

Plus, every parent, grandparent, or guardian in America would have at least one homemade footstool to display proudly.

These two educational paths aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s no reason a student who excels in industrial arts shouldn’t take calculus, college-level writing classes, or physics. In fact, I’d love for my plumber to be a math whiz who can communicate well because he’ll be more likely to understand the slope required for the refuse to get from the toilet to the sewer line. At the same time, how nice would it be if my loan officer also had at least a passing understanding about how much skill was required to put that sewer line in the ground correctly?

Too often, though, we devalue one of those skills in favor of the other, arguing that everyone needs a college education to succeed. Don’t get me wrong. As a dean at a public, four-year university, I love having students choose college, but I also know that we have a sizable chunk of students whose skill levels and talents lie in other directions. I applaud those universities and community colleges who are finding ways to provide skilled trade programs while also teaching the traditional core curriculum. Students shouldn’t have to wait until college, though. Instead, maybe it’s time we open those paths sooner. Or, at the least, stop pretending like it’s not worthwhile path to follow.

 

 

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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