Manual Labor

I have often advised young men to get a trade before going off to college — and more especially so if they are unclear as to what career they choose to follow. There’s no point in getting into debt when a well-intentioned degree in, say, Languages does not result in decent job prospects, and even worse when you realize that your career preference is not really congruent with your degree — a youthful desire to become a recording engineer transforms into a real desire to become a doctor when maturity comes into play. (And note that I’m not even talking about worthless degrees in nonsense such as Post-Modernist Poetry or African-American Studies.)

In fact, I’d counsel young men to join the Armed Forces if they still haven’t made their mind up about their career by age 19. (My good friend Doc Russia is a case study in this scenario: shiftless yoot at 18, USMC for a few years, med school and now a respected doctor.) The military has a wonderful way of crystallizing one’s thought process and compelling maturity.

Now comes this little snippet from Over Here:

Electricians are earning as much as £3,000 a week as they cash in on a chronic shortage of skilled workers across the country.
That amounts to £156,000 a year – around six times the average wage and more than the £150,000 earned by the Prime Minister.
Plumbers and bricklayers are also benefiting, with wages rising by as much as 10 per cent in the past 12 months.
Plumbers can earn as much as £2,000 a week, while brickies can bring home £1,125 – more than £50,000 a year.

Of course, this should come as no surprise. I recall some years back when Reader Mark C., at that time an executive at a large corporation in the oil exploration / development business (think: Bechtel, Asea Brown Boveri, those kinds of companies) was bemoaning the fact that he was unable to find enough warm bodies to train as welders and oilfield technicians, even when after a two-year apprenticeship, newly-minted workers would have an internationally-portable skill set that could command a starting annual wage of over $75,000 — for a 21-year-old.

The same is true for carpenters (rough, finished or cabinet-makers), electricians (light- or heavy current) and many other such trades. All you need to do is look at the progress made by that Jason guy on the Holmes on Homes TV show — a raw, inexperienced kid with nothing but a strong back and willingness to learn; three years later a qualified construction project manager who could start his own business and make a small (or even large) fortune. Don’t even get me started on the pro electricians, plumbers and such who featured on the show: even for Canucks, they must each have made a fortune, and were worth every penny. (As I recall, Holmes used a young Polish plumber, an immigrant who could barely speak English, on his earlier shows; by the end of the third season, this same kid had his own business with lots of other kids now working for him, and spoke perfect English.)

Compared to that, a drama major or Womyn’s Studies professor look quite insignificant — which they should be.

I’ve said before that my late father always told me to work with my brain and not my hands. Considering that he started off as a welder / boilermaker and ended up as the owner of a civil engineering company, it was the worst advice I’d ever got. (He went to night school at the Tech while working his day job, and eventually graduated with a civil engineering degree. Not bad for a farm boy.) He always told me to get a degree — any degree — because I could always fall back on that if my chosen career as a professional musician didn’t work out. What he should have said was, “Do a trade apprenticeship — any trade — and you can always fall back on that if you decide that being a lawyer sucks.”

I often wonder what would have happened had I done a few years’ carpentry right after leaving school. Whatever I’d finally become, I’m pretty sure that there would have been far fewer periods of abject poverty in my life.


  1. Kim, I hope you’ll forgive me for chiming in to expand on a point that derives from your spot-on advice (and from reading you for years on years): whatever you do, do it with an eye towards an ultimate goal of being your own man, i.e, your end goal should be to answer only to your customers, not a boss, a faceless business, or HR. I charged through college and law school with the thought that I’d finish school, take a job with a big law firm, make my money, and that’d be cool. What I discovered was something that nobody in “my world” had mentioned: being the “worker bee” in a corporation stinks. You’ll always knuckle your forehead to someone who isn’t, and has never been, on the front lines, and they’ll likely take the lion’s share of the results of your work, to boot. And there’s a whole structure and mechanism to “keep you in your place.” I spent over ten years living in that world, and finally realized that it was far, far more satisfying to have your own clients for whom you can directly work and provide top notch service to, all without the structure, hierarchy, and ugliness that springs from the dead-weight of a managerial class. And I think this holds true across most professions and careers, regardless of whether you’re talking about a carpenter, lawyer, or whatever: if you’re making a product or providing a service, and you’re willing to work hard, you don’t need the rainmaker or the manager. So take the apprenticeship, clerkship, residency, or whatever. Learn your trade. Learn from the guys on the ground. And then quit and start your own shop, or at least join a small one and be your own man.

  2. Working for your self is the dream and while you do not need to deal with HR and Bosses, you will have to deal with the government. An if you think HR is bad, get some mid level government functionary focused on you and yours with the intent of closing any and all business their right think says is bad.

    When we sent Trump up to drain the swamp we where not kidding. I would imagine it would be some what worse in Britain.

  3. Yep. I’ve my father to thank for teaching me several mechanical trades from an early age, and giving me perhaps the most valuable advice in my lifetime: Do whatever makes you happy, but know that few people who know how to build things go hungry.

    When I was a kid, that seemed a bit quaint– but then, there was no shortage of people who could build things then. Today, most of the people I know, who are quite intelligent yet devoid of practical skills, marvel at those who are able to make simple repairs and installations– stuff I was taught to do at the age of twelve.

    Some years back a friend’s son asked me what he should do with his career aspirations. I suggested a welding trade school, and if he had the stomach for it, a five year stretch of hyperbaric welding. He did so, and grossed over a million bucks in that time. He’s now 26 and running several of his own businesses.

  4. While I agree with everything you wrote about learning a trade, I find that most articles and anecdotes about different professions vastly over-estimate the earning potential of the average person. Yes, some highly skilled and highly motivated young people can walk out of a welding school and make 6 figures rather quickly. And some quickly go on to run their own shop and make big money. But more likely the averagely motivated person is looking at (South Texas) roughly $40k per year working in a shop the first several years, up to $60k once they get a little experience or specialization. Still enough to earn a nice middle class income, but I’ve seen some people get quickly disillusioned when they start asking where all the 6 figure salaries are at. My answer is those 6 figure welding jobs belong to guys who own a $100k truck with another $50k worth of tools, are willing to work 80 hrs per week, often in harsh conditions, and they deserve every penny. The more modest salaries are what you should expect starting out.

    This is based on my own son working in the field, my working in a construction heavy environment, and knowledge of various crafts and skills gathered over 30 years working in manufacturing. I firmly believe that learning a skilled trade is vital to both personal financial success and a stronger country. Just wanted to give a slightly more realistic expectation.

  5. Like all things, there is some good and some bad to this line of advice.

    Working construction is a wonderful job when you are 20. The pay is good, the jobs can be interesting and you get to create things, which most guys love doing. However, it can very much not be such a great job when you are 50 and your body is breaking down from working construction for the last 30 years.

    Now in theory, if you have a head for it, you can transition from being a worker bee to supervision and/or owning your own small company. Thing of it that not everyone (most) people who work in construction or skilled trades have the business acumen to run their own company. I have friends and relatives who have been successful doing so, I also have seen some fail hard as the skill set which made them successful individually did not transfer over to leadership, management, budgets, sales, etc.

    There is no magic bullet. This can be a great path for many (and certainly for some it is probably the only available path with much positive to be said for it). So, like anything, YMMV.

    BTW – I do think every young man should do some amount of manual construction type labor at some point in their life, but that has to do with building their life skill set more than necessarily as a career option – though of course it could lead to that.

  6. One problem is that manual labor, and trades in general, are seen as a fall back position for people that aren’t smart enough to get a degree. Manual labor is looked at as a horrible curse best left to the lower, dumber classes.
    Then you have kids being pressured into going to expensive colleges when they don’t really know what they want to do yet, and really need to grow up for a few years. One lie often told is that if they take a few years off, they will somehow forget how to learn things. They believe it, go on to Party U, and get an overpriced degree in useless studies they can’t use, and can’t really remember because they were drunk and stoned most of the time.
    Funny enough, few of my friends are still using their degrees, 20+ years after.

  7. Even if you work at a white collar job all of your life the traditional manual skills are great to have when you want to save money or if/when things go bad. I just completed a major kitchen remodeling job. I refinished my cabinets, and did all of the tile, plumbing, painting and electrical work. The only thing I farmed out was the granite countertop. Total bill was about $8000 for a job that would have run $20 – 25,000 if I’d contracted everything. Yes, it was a lot of work for this old man but momma’s happy. I didn’t borrow a penny and I was able to put the money I didn’t spend on the job to much better use. Should things ever go to shite I’d like to believe that my skill set (even at my advanced age) will be a lot more useful than those of a communication major or philosophy teacher.

    1. It also helps when you have someone working for you to know if they are doing it right.
      My Cuz, the CEO/CFO (quipped he took a 1/4 million $ pay cut when he stopped being the interim CEO and went back to his CFO position) had someone try to do a hack job either on a fence or a roof, forget which, and he put them straight. When he was paying his way through schooling, he did fencing and roofing, and well as chores for family and so did most anything. He was convinced to go to college when he was cutting pulp-wood (He was a lumberjack, and he’s okay) and had a bad morning.

    2. This. Big time. Having trade skills isn’t just a livelihood, it’s also handy around the house. Or for recreation.

      Though if you do that, it may take the fun out of it….

  8. I used to look at my girls and ask them, completely seriously, if they were really, really sure they didn’t want to go into plumbing or electrical.

    A lot of the kids at our local vo-tech high school come out and by the time they’re 21 or 22 are making as much, or more, than I did with my MLS and 13 years experience at that employer.

  9. The Higher Education Bubble is right on the cusp of crashing, and hard. Too many unemployable grads with far, far too much debt.

    As you said, degrees are fast becoming signs that the brain is filled with too much Leftist Gobbledygook and other useless nonsense. If your new hire refuses to hook up your whooizit because zhe thinks that the semiotics of “male” and “female” leads is sexist and needs trauma counseling…. then hiring some kid out of highschool who’s willing to learn doesn’t look so bad.

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