Friday, January 30, 2009

Skilled Trades

When I began high school, they decided to discontinue shop courses (wood shop, electric, auto repair) because they thought that we all should take college prep courses. At that time, I thought it was a flawed decision, and since I had not planned on majoring in shop courses, anyway I went ahead and took the college prep courses. Yet, the realization was plain as day to me that we will always need people who have those kinds of skills.

Why bring this up now? You can find part of the answer in debates today about how to improve our education system. In that debate, you can hear rational voices that say that we should have a greater focus on trade schools, because we always need people with skilled trades and not everyone wants to work in an office. I mean, have you heard anyone complaining about our country having too many good auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, nurses or other skills? No, I haven't either.

Later on in life, after I had many different jobs that resulted from my BA in Writing/English, including freelance writing, advertising, and magazine editing, as well as several years with a major corporation, I happened into a job as a picture framer for an art gallery. And it was one of the jobs I enjoyed most in my whole life.

For a brief interlude in my life, for about a year and a half, this was the perfect job for me. I enjoyed the satisfaction of making something with my hands. I enjoyed working in the shop with the man who was my boss and my teacher. He taught me how to fit the moulding and canvas together, how to cut glass and mats, how to calculate the best way to hang them.

The shop was a converted garage set back from the road a bit. It was peaceful with big old trees all around. The gallery was a separate building toward the front of the lot. Customers went into the gallery. Just the two of us worked in the back shop. We talked, we listened to classical or popular music while we worked. I enjoyed looking at the reproductions of classical art as we framed it, and we talked about the art and artists. Then there were old family photos and shadow boxes for retirees, and other special things we framed.

It was tight quarters in that old garage. We had a space heater in winter and a window unit air conditioner in summer. We had to fit in stacks of lumber, panes of glass and all the other materials along with the necessary machines, like a chopper, a joiner, a cutting board and a fitting table. It was very peaceful just focusing on the pictures, listening to music, talking. Since much of it was handcrafted, the workshop was rather quiet. There were some pneumatic tools, but still, a lot of the work did not demand a high level of noise.

When work was done, either customers would come in and pick it up or we would pack it and ship it. When they did see their finished pictures, they were always pleased at how well they looked and could not wait to get home and hang them up where they could look at them. Much lasting joy and pleasure went into people's lives because of the pictures they added to their places.

While I was working as a framer, I did not need an appointment book. I had no appointments to rush off to. When I went to work there were jobs on the shelves for me to do. When I locked the door to the shop at night, I didn't spend my evenings rehashing the events of the day or trying to plan a strategy for the days ahead. It was peaceful, not stressful. Scrap wood was brought home to be used as fuel in the fireplace. When I got home I could simply relax with a book or a movie and in the morning I would be happy to do it again.

When I moved out here, there was no opportunity to continue in the framing business, so I ended up in a corporate office job.

There are many people who would feel far more satisfied doing the manual labor, and skilled trades will generally pay well enough so that you can live decently. I think we have been missing something by not encouraging more people to discover the joys of working in a trade rather than encouraging so many to go to college and then end up with a degree that doesn't really help them work in the subject field they studied. A person who can make things, or fix things, will always be needed and appreciated. What if our education system gave them more emphasis?

It was the same kind of satisfaction I got from my many hours of gardening. I know that the times I have spent as a gardener and a picture framer were very satisfying, far more pleasurable ways of making a living than working in a cube farm. There is much to be said for how moving around while you work, making things or fixing things, enhances your physical health and your mental well being.

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