Not Durable, Evergreen

I have often counseled young men to take up a trade before (or, depending on the lad, instead of) going off to college.  This is as much for some kind of income stability, of course, as it is for them to learn the value and reward of hard physical work — which every man should experience.

So when I saw this link about “Durable Trades” at Insty’s, I hurried over to see what it was all about.  And was a little disappointed.

Defining “durable” has not been easy. I wanted to know which types of businesses have been the least affected by external factors throughout history, place, governments, economic cycles, invention, and social upheaval. Which trades have endured for centuries and still exist today? Which trades are the most family-centric? And, of course, which trades do all this and still provide a living? Conversely, which trades are overly dependent on brittle systems and therefore not likely to withstand economic, societal and technological upheaval?

Granted, in a time of economic collapse or a return to Middle Ages-type living, the demand for “Instagram influencers” may not be as important as they are today (quit that cheering).  But at the same time, I have to question some of his trades because while they may have been durable in the past — and to be fair, the author doesn’t attempt to forecast anything — I’m not so sure what the future holds for them.  Here are his top trades in order (and go back to the link to see his methodology):

Shepherd (rancher, livestock farmer, dairyman)
Gardener (arborist, landscaper, florist)
Woodworker (cabinetmaker, “finish” carpenter)
Carpenter (a builder of structures)
Painter (siding contractor, wall covering specialist)
Cook (chef, caterer, restauranteur)
Brewer (winemaker, distiller)
Innkeeper (hotelier)

For some reason, I think that an electrician is a more durable trade than a gardener — it certainly will be, going forward — and likewise, a metalworker (blacksmith, welder, etc.) will have a better go than an innkeeper.  (I know:  there wasn’t much call for electricians back in the sixteenth century, but I’ll bet that metalworkers were in high demand.)  And since we’ve moved away from leeches and trepanning, I’m pretty sure that a doctor would have a more durable trade than a wall covering specialist.

There are basically four kinds of trade, methinks (and there is some overlap, certainly over time):

Primal:  builders (carpenters, bricklayers, stone masons, and ship builders), farmers (crops and livestock) fishermen, weavers / tailors, drovers (carts and wagons, and the trades which built them:  blacksmiths, cartwrights and wainwrights), soldiers, cooks / bakers and yes, midwives.  From the Year Dot until, say, the twelfth century, all these trades could garner for their practitioners a decent and even consistent living.

Mechanical:   engineers, electricians, [add:  plumbers, thankee ] coachbuilders, and the trades which are extensions of, or adjuncts to the earlier ones:  architects, doctors, brewers / distillers, and so on.

Services:  innkeepers, painters, gardeners, waiters, repair technicians (outside of the primal trades), prostitutes, police, teachers and the like.

Intellectual:  lawyers, software developers, accountants, entertainers (actors, musicians) and so on.  (Typically, these do not require any kind of manual labor.)

I take Groves’s point about “family-centric” trades being the most durable (cooking, building, teaching and birthing are the first that come to mind), but the extension of that thought is that as one moves further away from home and family needs, one eventually ends up with advertising account executives and marketing consultants, whose value to society is so close to zero as makes no difference.

Feel free to discuss this topic further in Comments

Note:  I’ve left “professional sportsmen” and careers like “modeling” off the list entirely.  Although these folks can earn a substantial amount, the actual number that do (as a percentage of all people who perform such activities) is tiny — far less than 1% — and the vast majority of professionals of this type earn very little.  Also, the working life of a professional sportsman is little more than a decade, less for a model, so it’s not a durable trade.  (I know, golf.  It’s not a sport, it’s a game, like snooker.)

Some may also raise an eyebrow at my inclusion of prostitution on this list, but it’s not only a durable trade (assuming you can survive it, e.g. Carroty Nell), but one you could theoretically practice for a very long time.  (Here’s a little personal anecdote.  In my three-and-a-half years as an undergraduate here in Texas, I knew personally about half a dozen girls who had been on the game, and another few who were still doing it.  All were amazingly attractive, by the way.)


  1. Neither you nor Insty mentioned the concept of outsourcing. To be durable your profession needs to be something that can only be handled locally. If the whole globalization thing doesn’t go up in smoke, competition from cheaper providers could put your income in peril.
    Take prostitution for example. If this service is delivered in the traditional way, I would think that it would be immune to outsourcing except for that proportion of the trade involved with sexual tourism. In other words bring the customer to the supplier rather than the other way around. However, for many reasons we are living in a time of MGTOW, men going their own way, in which males avoid relationships with females for mental, financial, and legal liability reasons. Because of this there is a rising market for sex bots. These, with the advent of robotics combined with AI, are getting better and better at providing companionship and sexual relief. The customer here doesn’t care where the product is produced, transported, distributed or retailed.
    Equipment repair such as welding, plumbing, and electrical seems to be fairly long-term stable. There is a current controversy in regards to the “right to repair.” John Deere is one of the biggest companies declaring that all equipment must be repaired in a John Deere shop whether or not you have to ship your combine hundreds of miles at great cost for a software update. Eventually I think that JD will lose.

    1. I hope not. We are all descended from the passengers of the B Ark. It’s important to remember that.

  2. I used to break it down to 2 groups, those who made stuff and those who provided services to those who made stuff. I think your 4 group model is better. I fit somewhere between mechanical and intellectual (engineer but specialized in technology). But you admitted there’s overlap, which of course there always is in these types of things.

    As for being durable (and family-centric, whatever that means in this day and age), don’t overlook the fact that the “market” is not free. Many of those professions are controlled by codes, licensing, licensing fees, regulations, and other barriers to entry by our all-wise govt to protect those who already got theirs. Some entire professions are solely supported by the govt action – such as the funeral industry. You can’t just dig a hole and bury grandpa in the back 40 anymore.

    And we live in an era of intense specialization. There’s almost no room for a “jack of all trades” type person, even though I know a few. There’s a retired gentleman who supplements his income by provide all types of home repair, from leaky faucets to minor carpentry to small electrical repair. No permits, no license, just a phone number and a little discretion on both parts and he’ll get it done. I hear he does pretty well. This was all stuff my dad taught me, but yeah, I’m continually surprised by the number of people I see who cannot do even the simplest mechanical repairs to their own home.

    Historically, the longest lasting professions are brewers, prostitutes, and tax collectors.

  3. Even the Amish, sometimes used as a model of self-sufficiency, depend on the surrounding economy for tools, medicine, and quite a bit of food. Modern Amish often earn a living by providing skilled labor to the “English.”

    However, they make good neighbors.

  4. I spent my entire working life fixing things and teaching other people how to fix things. The majority of my technical education came from the military, my Associate Degree has been put down as a “glorified vo-tech” and I did lots of OJT. I specialized in HVAC and then electro-mechanical troubleshooting and repair of processing equipment, with a detour into OSHA compliance. I always made a very good living and now enjoy a comfortable retirement.

    After almost 50 years of turning wrenches and chasing voltages I’ve learned that things are always going to break. I’ve also learned that most people lack the skills and thought processes to logically troubleshoot equipment. So when stuff breaks, they’re going to call on people like me to fix it. Not a bad place to be.

  5. In 7th grade I took a Mechanical Drawing class and got hooked, took it every year throughout junior and high school. A new vo-tech opened and in 10th grade I started taking drafting there, while going to high school too. It was a 2 year drafting course and I completed it, and high school, 1 semester early and at age 16 (Jan 1972) I was out in the world. I then spent the next 14 years working for various architectural and engineering and construction jobs and in 1986 I was finally an architect and a year later an engineer. My family wasn’t wealthy, and I’m not the type to sit on my ass for 4 years “learning” stuff. What better way to learn how to pour concrete, frame buildings, run electrical wires and plumbing pipes than to get out there and do it? AND, make money while doing the learning? Unlike college students that come out the other end inexperienced and in debt I came out the other side experienced and money in my pocket.

    While I can’t specifically vouch for vo-tech schools these days because they are most likely dismal like all gov’t run facilities, I do believe apprenticeships, where young minds and bodies work and learn in specific functions under the guidance of experts, is the best way to establish life long goals and income. I am proof.

    1. “What better way to learn how to pour concrete, frame buildings, run electrical wires and plumbing pipes than to get out there and do it?”

      One could say the same for almost all trades except perhaps medicine and pharmacology. The “law degree” as a prerequisite for employment, for example, dates back only to the late 19th century.

      1. I’m not sure those are really exceptions. Becoming a doctor in the U.S. requires a lot of schooling, but it also requires a lot of working in a hospital under the supervision of an experienced doctor: at least 3 years as a medical student, a year of internship, 3-7 years of residency, and, for specialists, 1-3 years of fellowship. That sounds an awful lot like an apprenticeship to me.

        Lawyers usually do something similar, spending years as law clerks for judges or legal firms, then perhaps more years as an associate at a law firm (doing research and other paperwork to assist a more experienced lawyer). You can pass the bar exam without doing any of that, but your chance of being hired by a law firm without any clerk or associate experience is minuscule. Again, this may not be called an apprenticeship, but it sure does resemble one.

        Pharmacists also have to do this. According to one article I found, “approximately 25 percent of a pharmacy student’s time is spent in supervised practice, assisting in retail or hospital pharmacies under the eye of an experienced colleague.” Some of them also complete a one- or two-year residency in a specialty like psychopharmacology.

    2. I used to do community theatre, which allowed me to meet quite a few interesting people. One example is a young man who was playing my son on stage. I got to know him pretty well. He had considered his options and chosen to apprentice for a locksmith instead of going to college. I told him that I wish I had done something similar. I don’t think he will ever have trouble finding work — people will always need locksmiths. I’m reasonably happy with my career in technical writing, but I have been laid off multiple times and have had some gaps between jobs. It would have been great to have a skilled trade to fall back on during those times.

  6. A fascinating topic, and I mostly agree with what Kim says here. But I do have a few thoughts.

    I would have put doctors under Services. Classifying them as Mechanical doesn’t make sense unless you regard the human body as just a machine to be repaired, which seems inaccurate to me. I would also have included apothecaries/pharmacists under Services. There will always be a need for people who know how to make medications, even if they are just providing herbal remedies.

    Also under Services, I would add pastors and priests. I’m not religious, so I have no dog in this fight, but one thing anthropology tells us is that the religious impulse is damn near universal in human societies. People will always need, or at least want, moral guidance and a framework for understanding the role of humanity in the universe. And many people need community and support structure provided by a church, even if they’re not True Believers. Pastors and priests also provide counseling services that are acceptable to many folks who aren’t comfortable going to a psychiatrist (or can’t afford to).

    Under Intellectual, it’s important to recognize that you can’t run a society bigger than a village without clerks, scribes, bureaucrats, and other people who keep records and provide a management hierarchy. Kim did mention accountants, who fit into this category. (It’s no coincidence that some of the oldest written records we have from ancient times are financial.) In some societies, priests and monks have handled a lot of this, but not because there is anything religious about these pursuits, just that they require literacy and understanding of arithmetic, and the clerics were more likely to have those skills.

    1. Priests, philosophers etc. are part of the “Intellectual” category. As a “service”, mostly they have been sadly lacking.

      George Orwell’s Raven in Animal Farm represents the clergy — and his dismissive characterization thereof is pretty accurate.

  7. Kim, you are right about the working girls. A few years ago I had occasion to meet a number of them, let’s say socially. Often they were single mothers. Some were married. Many were independent, competent, sober, and sane. Some failed one or more of those categories … just like any other tradesman, I expect.
    In the coming times, we can’t afford not to be realistic about such things.
    On this theme, it’s fun to mention that portrayals of working girls in film are often the worst of stereotypes, which I only mention because it allows me to bring up the ever-lovely and ageless Diane Lane in Lonesome Dove … as a counter example.

  8. I suggest another category:
    * Rebels, rascals, and various versions of malcontented visioneers.
    For some of us, looking forward to more of the same seems insane; the alleged value of the predictable/comfortable is lost on me.

    I think the whole shooting match went downhill about ten thousand years ago with this experiment in agriculture and its goofy hit-n-miss-but-mostly-miss offspring ‘civilization’.
    So far, all the evidence indicts [shames?] their promoters and spokes-models.

    This opinion comes from an unrepentant hunter/gatherer.
    As such, I tend toward hugs and holding hands to watch the sunrise; I harbor no guiding craving to ‘make my mark’ so future generations look back upon my accomplishments in awe.

    I hope to ‘leave my camp as though no one was there’.

    1. Mostly, hunter/gatherers of yore had a very short lifespan, until they banded together. Nowadays, the hunter/gatherers are the military.

      Sucks, but there it is.

    2. > * Rebels, rascals, and various versions of malcontented visioneers.

      Not a trade as such. More of a profession that pays badly.

  9. Although we’ll always need farmers & shepherds, we need much fewer of them than in the past. 200 years ago, about 90% of the population of even the most advanced nations were farmers or herders; now it is less than 10% and dropping, and most of these are hired hands for corporate farms. They are neither stable nor rewarding professions – although the working conditions have improved in that most farmhands no longer have to worry so much about being killed (and their daughters raped) by every bandit or soldier passing through.

    1. And, with modern communications and medical practices, breaking your leg in-the-field is not necessarily a death sentence, as it once was.

  10. In modern society you could lose 90% of the population and society would recover, now, if you lost that 5% that keeps things running it would collapse.

  11. You’re not wrong with your assessment. And your labor divisions probably stack up pretty well. But you gotta ask yourself, “who are societies’ wealth creators? “. Most of us are not. We have value add skills to wealth but we don’t create it. The issue lies with the fact that we equate money with wealth. So a wall street plutocrat may have a lot of $$$ but generates no wealth. In any society wealth comes from agriculture, I use the term agriculture as a shorthand for mining, fisheries, timber, farming. Its the place where everything starts from. The rest of us are leeching off of that in some level of manipulation of the core thing, whether turning it into lumber, or transporting it from point a to b, or figuring out something else to do with it. 90% of us don’t create anything, we manipulate what someone else created.

  12. That list of durable trades, looks more like a set of skills for SHTF survival. I have had some experience in all of them (except midwife ). I think that some plumbing and electrical skills and CPR/First Aid need to be added to a well rounded individuals skill set.
    As to employment skills for the future, heavy equipment operation, and mechanic are a couple for any list.

    1. That’s a trade created by government. Disposal of human remains was often a community service or performed by family, except when religion got involved.

      1. Someone above mentioned that you just can’t bury Gramps in the “South 40” any longer – anyone with that opinion hasn’t seen the Nevada “out back”.

  13. sorry – and dieners – the people responsible for handling, moving, and cleaning the corpse

  14. My dad was an insurance agent and a cattle farmer who had no college or trade school. He bought a bankrupt lumber yard when he got out of the Navy for less than the cost of the lumber inventory and made corn cribs until he built up his herd. Mom was a cake decorator. My dad was a firm believer in education, just wasn’t willing to pay for it (and there were 9 of us). He wound up being one of the founders of a community college in our area and was on the Board of Trustees for 40+ years (President of the BOT for 16), which was an elected position.

    He encouraged all of us to get a trade or a skill before we struck off for college. I was essentially finished with high school in three years, so I went to the CC for my senior year of high school and became an EMT. Two of my brothers became welders, one a carpenter and three more electricians. Only the one who became a carpenter is still at it, and he does restoration carpentry in South Carolina and Georgia. Both my sisters became nurses and one went on to go to medical school and is a pediatrician, the other is the COO of a law firm. I joined the Navy, became a hospital corpsman, first with the Marine infantry, then with a Marine helicopter squadron, getting licensed as a paramedic along the way. Went on to become an Independent Duty Corpsman (IDC), then a Physician’s Assistant (Warrant Officer) and ultimately a clinical engineer specializing in hospital construction and imaging systems (Commissioned Officer). When the Navy stopped building hospitals, they sent me to graduate school again for an MSIS in Clinical Information Systems Engineering. Never intended to make a career out of the Navy, just woke up one day and wondered where the past 37 years had gone. Retired, became a healthcare fraud investigator for 7 years and retired again.

    Now I run a commercial bakery I bought out of bankruptcy last year. I get a half dozen or so “apprentices” (not really, just students) from the local community college’s culinary program every semester and I basically pay them $11/hour not to break anything expensive and to learn modern bakery operations (it’s 90% computerized). Some of them are great, but most of them are really lazy. The foreign kids work their asses off and ask me for extra work. The American kids smoke weed on the loading dock and eat more than they work.

    I can see me doing this until I hit 70 (I’m 63), since I don’t do any of the real work.

  15. I’ve always found this quote from Saint Heinlein to be applicable:

    A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
    -Robert A. Heinlein

  16. There’s one big one missing off your list of primal professions: the potter. I think that of all the primal professions it is the one that has been replaced by technology.

  17. No one mentioned machinists. The humble lathe goes back to the Egyptians, the milling machine early 19th century The system of precise measurement enabled parts to be made as interchangeable came along first with Pierre Vernier in the early 17th century as well as the micrometer about that time with William Gascoigne. (Gascoigne invented the telescopic sight along the way)

    Machinists add value to what they produce and create wealth along the way. They kind of make everything possible so I think they deserve some recognition here.

  18. Another way to learn a trade is through military service. Join the military with a guaranteed job in one of the trades. Something that could be a career once they got out.

    I did the USAF where I was trained to install and maintain satellite communications systems. I got my AA two year degree from the Community College of the Air Force. I stayed in the military by joining the Air National Guard and retired with 21 years of service 17 years ago. I used the GI bill to help pay for my 4 year degree in IT Management after active duty. I had good IT jobs up until the IT bust in 2001/2002. I found out I could make better money in satellite communications as a technician.

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