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Where are all the plumbers?

A high school teacher told my husband that if he didn’t try harder, he would wind up as nothing more than a construction worker. This was and is considered a punishment for “lazy” kids. Well guess what? He does work in construction and he’s doing fine. More than fine, actually, he’s doing better than most people I know with graduate degrees. He’s also pretty useful to have around. When a 100-yr-old sewer pipe broke in our yard, we fixed it (now there’s a true test of a marriage – spending 2 days up to our ankles in sewage with no running water in the house). When we needed new gutters, we installed them. Our TV stand? He made that. When the pipes froze, cracked, and leaked, we ripped out half the kitchen, installed a new pipe, then patched and finished the wall.

Photo of me at work

We rebuilt a supporting wall in our basement (which included pouring a new foundation -that’s me in the photo vibrating concrete) and we’re in the process of digging a French drain under our porch. It’s taking us a long time to fix up our house because we both have full-time jobs, but we haven’t spent a penny on labor. His mom still wishes he would go to college, but she calls him every time something needs to be fixed, installed, or built.

Gen X is going to see a dramatic decline in skilled craftsmen as we get older, because this kind of work was actively discouraged when we were in school. In 2009, the average age of a licensed plumber or electrician was 55. Soon, these people will be retiring, and there are very few people ready to take their place. We’ve somehow created a society full of academics. College is considered so vital to future wealth and happiness that now you can be looked down upon for only having a bachelors degree (trust me, I know). How ever far we might have advanced as a society, we still need people to build and fix things, and I don’t see this changing any time soon. Lack of skilled labor has an impact on global economic growth, too, by impeding national infrastructure projects such as transportation and power. Despite the struggling economy, employers desperately need but cannot find skilled welders, electrical linesmen, geotechnical engineers, civil engineers, and more.

Gen Xers have a responsibility to break down the negative stereotypes that surround blue-collar work. Encourage your kids to make, build, and repair. Don’t force them into college because it’s what you did, and/or it’s what you think they should do. Be proud of their talents, even if they are non-academic, and help bring the honor back to skilled labor. If we don’t, we’re going to be in trouble in 15-20 years when our kids hit the workforce and there’s no one left to call when something breaks.

11 responses to “Where are all the plumbers?

  1. Ashley

    I am a Gen Y/ Millennial, and I feel like we will have a pretty sizable return to skilled labor just because no one can get a job out of college. It just doesn’t make sense to go for practical reasons anymore.

  2. JennX

    Excellent question – What’s our definition of success, and do we need to live by the one that we were given?

    My husband also works with his hands – started with an architecture degree, but then moved on to building sets for theaters, then got an MFA in furniture design, and now is a stay-at-home dad who makes jewelry and sculptures.

    And we have lots of friends in IATSE – stagehands union – who are super smart, creative interesting people.

    And yet, I assume my kids, and their kids, will all go to college. And I simply can’t imagine them not. But I certainly don’t imagine that they can’t then go and do something with their hands!

    Wow, this is unpacking a lot of assumptions for me about success…

    • Ashley

      It would be interesting to think about a way that “vocational” schools could incorporate some liberal arts philosophies, or vocational skills could be taught within liberal arts institutions so people could get both a practical and philosophical approach to education.

  3. JenniferVH ⋅

    And then there are those of us working at living history sites who offer classes in the old skills. Cooking from scratch (on a wood cookstove no less), working with wood, blacksmithing, tatting, crocheting, handling farm animals. If we don’t pass on these skills, I’m afraid no one will be left to pass these on. Of course, the internet does help in some ways. I needed a refresher in knitting after about 15 years hiatus from it. I found a great website and it showed me a different way of knitting I liked better and made me want to keep knitting. Who knew?

  4. JennX

    JenniferVH – GenX did found the DIY movement, yes? and with the whole urban homesteading movement (chickens! bees!) I think there is a return to desiring these skills. But I think the key is that they aren’t really things you can make a living at (okay, museum interpreter aside!). They’re valued in a way because they don’t _have_ to be done, right? We don’t _have_ to knit our own sweaters, or cook on a wood cookstove. But we do need someone to plumb our pipes and wire our houses – and there’s not a lot of back-to-the-land romance in that!

  5. Might I commend the book “Shop Class as Soulcraft” in this regard?

  6. JenniferVH ⋅

    I was thinking perhaps there will be living history sites that teach these skills as they move into the 20th century. And I’m only half joking. I know what you’re saying about the worth of a job whether it is physical or less labor intensive and we shouldn’t measure success on necessarily the ability and achievement to go to college. From the info graphic we shared on here about comparing teens from the 1980s to the 2010s, I was surprised to see 1980s students were wanting to major in many sciences and the current students are in more liberal arts, especially history was listed (!) as well as arts (notably visual). Could this also mean that the current students are not majoring in civil and mechanical engineering?

    JennX, you mentioned it yourself. The DIY generation has maybe come about because we feel we can learn it and do it ourselves. Perhaps if we show our children our values in wanting to be able to fix our own stuff, we can also transfer that to saying it is valuable to have a business in the fixing stuff. Maybe this will be our second/third/fourth careers….

  7. It used to be that people with less economic advantage and particularly people of color were pushed into vocational work because it was assumed that college wasn’t a place for them. I know I heard that refrain a lot from my older relatives. There was a lot of pressure to go to college because they couldn’t, and not a lot of talk about whether or not it was a good fit for my needs or career aspirations. I’m glad I did an AmeriCorps term of service with Habitat for Humanity because I picked up a ton of valuable hands-on skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

  8. I love love love all of the crafter, maker, and DIY movements that we’re seeing now because they are definitely helping to reverse the negative stereotypes associated with working with your hands, but they do focus mostly on fun, non-essential things. They are considered hobbies to be done in between the “real” academic work. We need to change the mindset that makes skilled labor seem like a dirty job, something only for the students who cannot do anything else. I do think a combination approach to education would be great, with academic programs offering courses in trade skills, too (I would have loved that!) but we must stop thinking of a non-academic path as a lesser choice. And believe me, our house needs so much work that if my husband and I do have kids, they will be helping as soon as they are old enough to swing a hammer 🙂

  9. Yandymung ⋅

    What I wouldn’t do for a man who had a tool belt instead of three masters degrees. Sigh! I only have one masters degree, but I can (and must, since he cannot) wield a reciprocating saw with skill. Is this what we want for our daughters??! My son will be a plumber!

  10. but I’m working so hard so I can send my son to college…. Measuring success is something I have to look at as a cyclical experience. I may feel completely ineffective on one thing Im working on and telling my Mom on the phone about it and then finish my conversation with well it wasn’t a complexly poor day, I also did x-y-z… Often that x-y-z was so much bigger then the thing sending me into disappointment. Perhaps the natural cycle of a critical problem solving overachieving creative…but perhaps the cycle of many of us GenX museum people. The more I read your words, friends, the more I see myself in a reflection of you. My personal feelings and experiences are stronger as part of this collective because they are also yours.
    I’m a painter- I took a risk and quit my museum jobs to work full time in my studio because my DYI life is what I must depend on for tuition money for a phd… thats a crazy cycle to me when I just would like to work in a museum. I used to just want to be a famous painter, and I do… I just think though that its more important to develop Jewish art history iPad apps & exhibitions because my nice paintings are less likely to prevent a genocide. They can do other great things… I can do them all really.

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