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.




Biting the Hand that Feeds You

Every time I hear rich guys say racist and ignorant things, my first thought is never sympathy for the victims of hateful speech, the social impact, or even the implications regarding free speech.

Mostly, I sit and wonder how someone who is such a dunce can get so stinking rich while I struggle every month to pay my mortgage.

Our latest entrant into the Hall of Shame is Donald Sterling, a man whose comments sound eerily similar to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, another man who used his media fame to wax philosophical about “the Negro.” (Those are Mr. Bundy’s words, not mine.) Bundy, a man who wonders if “they were better off as slaves,” evidently felt confident his anti-government views would keep his supporters firmly behind him.

As often happens when people make idiots of themselves on the public stage, we are confronted with the implications of free speech. In these situations, however, we should be reminded that the beauty of America is, and this is really important, that we all have a Constitutional right to say anything stupid and ignorant we want. Prejudice is not illegal in this country, and, as we all learned in Sociology 101, prejudice and discrimination are two very different things. One is illegal and one is not.

Likewise, though, each of us also has the Constitutional right to suffer the consequences of a culture growing increasingly tired of old prejudices that preach hatred and degradation couched in mis-readings of religion and politics.

Bundy is sliding back into obscurity and losing support because a desire for small government transcends race and ethnicity. (It doesn’t help that we quickly found out he has been breaking the law for many, many years. Nothing like a man feeding his cows for free on government land who complains about people living for cheap in government houses. Some days it’s hard to tell the makers from the takers, isn’t it?)

Which brings us to Mr. Sterling, a man who built his wealth as a divorce and personal injury lawyer. Sterling, described once as one of the worst owners in the NBA, was today fined $2.5 million and banned from the NBA for life. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has vowed to take steps to force Sterling to sell the Clippers.

Everyone seems to be on board. There is, almost, a collective sigh of relief from the NBA world as we can turn our attention back to the playoffs.

Case closed. Another ugly moment swept under the rug and locked in the closet.

I state emphatically that I find Sterling’s comments reprehensible and disgusting (as well as incredibly stupid since he has gone out of his way to offend the very group of people who line his pockets with ridiculous amounts of wealth).

I ask again–why is he rich and I’m not?

I recognize that the LA Clippers are a part of the National Basketball Association and that Association has a Board of Governors and a set of rules by which they play. Silver and the Board are well within their rights, I’m sure, to ban Sterling from taking part in NBA activities in much the same way that any organization with by-laws has the right to hold members to certain agreed upon standards. I would imagine that the NBA, an organization whose players are 70% African-American, has something in its by-laws that states or implies being a racist is both stupid and costly. At the very least, I would guess they can fine him for behavior detrimental to the league, and I totally support such a thing.

But I’m not sure this case is that simple.

If I voluntarily join a group and I don’t follow the rules, I face the consequences of those acts. Heck, if I don’t like the rules I can go start a blog and share my thoughts independently of the by-laws I don’t like. My free speech is intact and the group gets to maintain its autonomous identity.

Sterling owns the LA Clippers, a business that is part of the NBA but not owned by the NBA. The NBA as an association can distance itself from Sterling, they can fine Sterling, and, in theory, they can kick the Clippers out of the NBA for not following its by-laws.

At the end of the day, though, Sterling’s business ownership is independent of his membership. Understand that I recognize the distinction I’m making here is philosophical and semantic. If the NBA boots the Clippers out of the league, they are effectively ending Sterling’s ownership because his business will likely have no venue with which to earn money. What are they going to do–play pick up games for tips at White Power Rallies?

The distinction, though, between fining, banning, and forcing someone to sell is important. The NBA can’t be in the business of revoking ownership when its members say and do distasteful things. Punishments and fines are one thing. Banning an owner from participating in the governance structure of an organization he has voluntarily joined is fine. He did, after all, know the rules and by-laws.

What the NBA is attempting to do, though, would be akin to the Better Business Bureau banning a local business and then forcing the owner to sell because he doesn’t want to join and play by their rules. Isn’t that a little bit like offering to protect a business and then burning them down if they don’t pay?

Forcing him to sell his privately owned company because we don’t like what he says moves beyond enforcing by-laws and begins to attack the very foundations of the capitalistic enterprise upon which we have, in theory, built our great nation. There is no evidence that Sterling broke the law regarding discriminatory hiring practices and there is no real evidence he has done anything illegal that would disqualify him from owning the business called the LA Clippers.

In much the same way that Sterling has the right to speak out regarding his views on race, and in much the same way that the NBA has a right to punish a member of its Association, Sterling has a right to run his company as he sees fit within the laws of our country.

He can, simply put, choose to run that company outside the NBA. Sponsors can then choose to support or not support him. Workers can choose to play on his team or not work on his team. Fans can choose to attend games or not. His business might fail, but that is his choice and his right. Any other option reeks of monopolistic control not just of a product (basketball) but also stinks of creating a litmus test for business ownership.

Sterling has very right to own his team and disengage from the NBA. He could go form his own association of Extraordinary Idiots Who Believe Stupid Things. Maybe Cliven Bundy can get a team together and join the league.

Of course, no one would be stupid enough to follow that business model. That would be like telling your girlfriend to stop bringing black people to basketball games.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

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The Full Feed from

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)