Trading in? Trading up?

Following on yesterday’s post, about changing careers midstream, I’d like to talk about trades — not baseball or hockey, but THE trades, a part of the job market that doesn’t get a lot of respect in the knowledge-based economy — right up until you get the bill.

When I was in school back in the Pleistocene epoch (before the Internet!) there were two distinct streams for students: academic and general. Most of the kids in the latter stream either did not graduate or moved on to “vocational” school before Grade 12. Some people did go to vocational school after Grade 12 — but generally for non “trades” courses, like radio production. One university friend who couldn’t find a job in her field after graduation went to vocational school to be certified as a library technician, and later went on to earn a Master’s and a PhD in library and information sciences.

As education became more wide-spread over the past century, trades were increasingly seen as the repository for people who weren’t smart enough to cut the academic mustard. As the economy became a knowledge-based entity — creating and moving paper and ideas instead of concrete objects — vocational schools became community colleges but somehow even with that academic patina the trades became even more devalued. Except, as I said, when the bill arrived.

I quite happily work in a steel tower instead of a barn and dig up information instead of ditches, but I still need water to come out of my tap. I’d rather my house not burn down due to faulty wiring when I turn a light on. And I’d rather that steel tower I work in, and the box I drive, be made by people with aptitude and training. I like a butcher to cut my meat, a baker to bake my multigrain ciabatta (because god knows I’ve failed to do it so far) and a candlestick maker to light up my night.

All that to say that there is a place in the world for people who can take an engine apart, figure out why it doesn’t work, fix it and reassemble it — regardless of their academic ability otherwise. We still need people to go into the trades, and just because you like to or prefer to work with your hands doesn’t mean you’re less intelligent than the guy in the corner office whose desk you’re building or whose drain you’re unplugging. And if he thinks so, just smile your smug smile when you hand him the bill.

Because there’s the secret — when school guidance counsellors and job coaches push people to academic pursuits, that’s the thing they don’t mention. You could leverage your Master’s degree into a low-level office job starting at $35,000 a year, or you could make that as a second-year electrical apprentice (approximately, of course, and every province is different) and not have to kiss nearly as much butt to move ahead from there. And chances are you wouldn’t have an electronic leash to keep you tied to the office on your off-hours.

That’s not to say that the trades aren’t stressful at all, but it’s a different kind of stress, and for some people the work is a lot less crazy-making.

So maybe you were pushed to academics by demanding parents or instructors, but you really want to be a cabinet maker. You can always make stuff in your workshop at home — and if you’re good at it, you might be able to turn your hobby into a lucrative artisanal business. Or you could spend a few years in school and in training and do it for a living — and if you’re good at it, and a fair dealer with your clients, you could maybe out-earn the average corporate senior vice-president.

There’s a lot of talk about the growing trades shortage in Canada — and while there is some disagreement about the extent of the problem, it’s generally understood that the greying of the population, along with the tendency to stream people towards academics, could leave us short of people to build and plumb and wire our houses, let alone work in our industries.

So maybe, instead of improving your academic qualifications in order to find a new job after a layoff, it would do you some good to think about whether you’re really happy doing that kind of work. People tend to be applauded for the hard work it takes to move from blue-collar to white, but maybe it’s time to validate the reverse.