Working Outside The Cube

A good article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine takes a long look at the world of work and finds value in (and a growing need for) people trained to do something with their hands.

But there are also systemic changes in the economy, arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect of making the manual trades – plumbing, electrical work, car repair – more attractive as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.

He also speculates that we may be doing our kids a disservice by preplanning their future.

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things.

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions.

As the writer of the article makes clear, the process of repairing a motorcycle or working in other “vocational” trades (to use a discredited term from my past) can often require thinking skills that go beyond what is required by some in “information” jobs.

The whole article is worth the time to read, especially if you are someone who subscribes to the idea that every student should be trained for college admission.

Even if it’s not the path that fits their interests and talents.

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