Modern society is obsessed with technology and stimulating new gadgets that are fresh and hold promise for the future. But can we continue to progress through technology alone?
Consider how computers have eliminated the need for encyclopedias. With the help of your pal Google, you can now avoid combing through dusty volumes at the library. But there’s a price to pay for this convenient change in the elimination of book publishers. Does it really matter? Can’t we just embrace all things digital as a better form of storage? No one knows all the ramifications yet, but in the world of “The Matrix,” Neo was awakened to discover there’s more to life than being plugged into the grid where all individuality and free thinking is eliminated.
As craftspeople, we are greatly affected by technological advances. It’s not just the elimination of jobs and how we fabricate our product, but through the developing mindset of how what we do is perceived by the society we live in. There’s always been a chasm between the white- and blue-collar worlds. But, as technology expands, so does the distance between the shirts we wear. Do not underestimate the power technology has on shaping public opinion. Our education system romanticizes intellectual challenges, not the process of getting splinters in your hands. This perceived value judgment suggests throwing the baby of craftsmanship out with the bath water of how’s it’s been done in the past.
Preaching to the choir
I’ve talked with hundreds of people through the years about the inequality that exists between the blue-collar trades and white-collar professions. And I’m pretty much convinced you can’t change people’s perspective when their values have been nurtured from the cradle. For me, it started as a youth when I was indoctrinated to believe white-collar work was the only path to satisfaction. We were taught to believe success would be found through a traditional education. The guys who opted to go to the vocational center were somehow considered lesser types. They were kind of like the junior varsity football team — nobody cared whether they won or lost. Only the varsity team mattered, and that’s where I was determined to be playing. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no regrets about my college education. In fact, I encouraged my own kids to get one (I’ll explain this perceived hypocrisy later). What bothers me is that it was presented as the only “right” choice. Where was this misinformation coming from: parents, teachers, politicians, corporate leaders? Yes, to all of the above. It’s as if our societal elders take it upon themselves to concoct a new batch of broth from each generation. Like a smith, they heat up the precious metal of youth waiting for the slag to rise to the top. Once the impurities have been separated, they are removed from the molten prize and sent to the trade schools. The precious metals are formed into stackable bars and sent via high security to the Fort Knox Ivy League schools.
A skewed perspective? Perhaps, but hopefully you get the point. Society teaches us from youth to place hierarchical values on occupations. Being higher up on the ladder doesn’t create a better person. In fact, the lower rungs are just as important because they allow others to make the ascent. Then why is there such a disparity?
There is a motivation behind everything that goes on in life. My house was recently burglarized. The motivation of the thief? Personal gain. Whether it was for money, the thrill, or just boredom, it boils down to pure selfishness. The action harmed more people than it helped; I was violated, the cops spent valuable time investigating and my neighbors got a reality jolt of fear. So who gained in this transaction? Only the perpetrator.
When we compare the guy who works in Carhartt bib overalls to the Armani suit, we see an obvious disparity. Our natural assessment is to assume one rules the other, one makes more money than the other and, sadly, one has more value than the other. Let’s not beat around the bush. Politically correct or not, it’s a fact. Just because we don’t like talking about society’s ugliness doesn’t make it go away. It simply suppresses it for another day. And during that stasis of denial, it gets infected and festers into a much more problematic issue. So let’s just cut this imagery cancer out right now.
I believe you can trace every idea, concept and action to money. Money drives our politics, our beliefs and the type of work we do. And this is why we have such a disparity between the different types of occupations. The bottom line is everyone depends on someone. None of us live on an island. Consider this: A carpenter gets paid only for actual work and product generated, whereas an investment banker makes money based on the perceived value of something. He doesn’t produce a physical product, only an idea. I once worked for such a guy. He watched me for more than an hour coping some crown moulding, marveling at the skill and patience it took to do the work. He later confided that he makes “a ton of money” doing nothing more than a phone call or authorizing a sale with a stroke of a pen. He freely admitted his job was not productive, just highly profitable. Because he was my client, he knew exactly how much I was getting paid and actually felt guilty for the disparity. I recently heard a great commercial for a sale going on for “workingman clothes”. It was a two-for-one deal and the contractor they interviewed admitted it’s a great idea, but followed it up by saying, “now if you want two buildings we’ll build you two, but for the price of two.” The margins in our custom hand-built industry are slim — they always have been. It’s because we can only charge for what we actually produce, unlike value perceived or mass-produced product that gets made for next to nothing.
Why do I care or what am I supposed to do about it? I teach a cabinetmaking class a few times a year. The most obvious characteristic about the class is the demographic: 80 percent are at or near retirement age. Another 18 percent are 35 or older and maybe 2 percent are in their 20s. I’ve heard this same story from businesses and other schools around the country. These observations support the notion that most young people do not want to go into the trades. When I was making career choices in the 1970s, the festering attitudes of “perceived value” were in their infancy, yet large percentages were still entering the blue-collar world. Today, there just isn’t much interest in pursuing a trade career. You cannot blame it on the youth; it’s the previous generation’s fault. To remain sustainable, the trade industry must implement change. It’s about developing the right attitude. For instance, after being burglarized I made some conscious choices to prevent it from happening again. Not just the obvious physical measures, but an attitude change. Why should I let someone who willingly altered my life for his gain take things from me that I was unwilling to release? And the same can be said about society’s attitude towards blue-collar work. Why should we allow misinformation to skew the perceived value of what we do?
I told you I’d explain my reasoning behind encouraging my own kids to go to college. A college education does not define the white- and blue-collar world anymore; it’s become the standard for all occupations. I think it would do you good to ask yourself why you got into working with wood. I know a lot of college-educated woodworkers who made a career choice simply for the satisfaction of working with their hands. It’s natural for man to work with his hands — it’s how the human race has advanced. The pyramids may display a genius of intellect, but without the gritty work in the trenches, they never would have become one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Have we advanced to such a stage where we jettison our roots simply for the allure of what is perceived to be a higher form of work? We still need people to build in this country. A reliance on technology and outsourcing will eventually eliminate even the one making decisions at the top of the food chain.
David Getts is a certified kitchen designer and owner of David Getts Designer Builder Inc. in Seattle.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.