My first job was during the summer before college selling pots and pans. My father had been successful in door-to-door sales, but I soon discovered that the gene skips a generation.
After that, my summer breaks were spent working mostly in mills and factories, where the end product varied but the work never did. As James Taylor put it in his poignant 1979 ballad “Millworker”: Millwork ain’t easy, millwork ain’t hard, millwork it ain’t nothin’ but an awful boring job.
Things changed in the summer of 1969, when I held two full-time jobs. The first was the 11-to-7 graveyard shift at the Topps bubblegum factory, where I scooped boxes of Bazooka baseball card packs off a conveyor belt, placed them into larger boxes, closed the top with a pneumatic stapler, and stacked the box on a pallet. My 3 a.m. lunch break never came too soon.
When the whistle blew at 7 a.m., I drove to the jobsite of a plumbing, heating, and electrical contractor, where I worked as a helper doing mostly grunt work. I vividly remember my first experience with a hammer trying to fasten the housing for baseboard heat to the wall as instructed with a drywall nail. I missed the nail five times in a row and struck my left thumb instead, transforming it into a bloody, stinging pulp.
Compared with the factory job, though, the remodeling work offered not only some variety, but it required attention and reasoning and judgment, even for someone of my low-level helper status. I wasn’t just keeping up with machines, I was learning about how things work, how parts go together, and the difference the right tool makes.
Three years later, I paid my way through night school by taking a job as a laborer on a custom home site in Peacham, Vt. Again I started with menial tasks but graduated to more skilled work, thanks to my employers. They were about my age, students of architecture and construction who took time to educate me not just about what to do and how to do it, but why it had to be done in a particular way. I learned a lot about structure and load paths, the properties of lumber, and the importance of building in the proper sequence and thinking many steps ahead.
The term “vocation” has lost its origin in the Latin vocatio, meaning a “call” or “summons.” Today it is thought of as what you’re stuck with if you can’t get a desk job—“back” work instead of “brain” work. But, in my experience, one of the main attractions of the trades is that they require back and brain work in equal measure.
Unfortunately, this combined skill set, which is revered in athletes, is disparaged in tradesmen. Maybe that’s because kids have more opportunity to test their sports ability than their aptitude for the trades. And throwing or kicking a ball is easier and more fun than hammering, sawing, or drilling. It’s less dangerous, too—but by the time kids are old enough to safely handle tools and materials, they’ve lost interest.
We need to promote the positive attributes of construction more publicly and more often. We can talk about the confidence we feel in knowing how things work, at being the one that others turn to for solutions. We can tell kids how rewarding it is to work autonomously but also collaboratively in small, closely knit groups. And we need to help them to understand the satisfaction we feel at the end of the day when we can stand back and see the tangible fruits of our labor.
Kids don’t choose the trades because we don’t give them that choice. And that’s on us.