Sitting around the table after Christmas dinner, I was speaking to one of my dad’s cousins about possibly taking a course in classic automobile engine repair at the local community college. We both share a love of classic cars, and I’ve always been fascinated with the internal combustion engine.
We both had other reasons as well. Part joking, I said we’d be able to fix up a car if somehow computers stopped working and so did all modern cars. (You know, zombie apocalypse kind of stuff.) Gary, being more pragmatic, said it was always good to learn a trade.
He’s right. He and his wife are both in their 60s. When the economy crashed and they both lost their jobs a few years back, Gary was able to find a new one because he’s a tradesman — a pipe fitter and plumber. His wife has yet to find a job.
It was ironic that we were having this conversation, because two weeks prior I saw a rather poignant post appear in my Facebook news feed. It was from Mike Rowe, star of the former Discovery Channel hit show “Dirty Jobs,” who now spends his time heading the mikeroweWORKS Foundation. His charity is dedicated to supporting “hard work and skilled trades,” including offering scholarships to people who wish to peruse a a career in these fields.
Rowe wrote an entire commentary after a presidential candidate Tweeted out the following statement:
“At the end of the day, providing a path to go to college is a helluva lot cheaper than putting people on a path to jail.”
So if you don’t go to college, it’ll lead you on a path to prison. Um …
For the record, I’m not attributing this quote to the presidential candidate in question for two reasons: 1) You can easily look it up yourself, and 2) it doesn’t matter who said it because, as Rowe pointed out in his column, politicians from both sides of the aisle have said similar things.
Why am I bringing this up when this blog is coming from a software company where everyone here has gone to college or is currently working on their degree? Because somewhere along the line we failed as a nation to recognize that honest, hardworking jobs are just as important to our society as technical, scientific, and artistic jobs. For decades, we’ve told our youth that you must earn a four-year college degree, when we should have been saying you should continue your education, whether it’s a university, a vocational school, a community college, entering the military, taking up an apprenticeship, or a mixture of any of them.
Let’s take your primary care physician as an example. He provides an important service to your community, and lives in a society where he can concentrate on his efforts of keeping his patients healthy. Why? Because someone has grown, distributed, and sold the food he ate for breakfast this morning. Someone was there to fix the clogged sewer line down the street from his house to keep his neighborhood sanitary. Someone paved the roads between his house and his office. Someone was able to change the oil in his car on his lunch break — not because he isn’t capable of doing it, but because his time is limited.
And why does this matter to us as a software company? Because ALL of our customers — whether they’re in manufacturing and distribution or construction and real estate — rely on skilled labor at the heart and soul of their businesses.
Let’s take Triangle Suspension Systems as an example. They’ve been a customer of ours since 2009. Over the years, we’ve worked with them to provide business management software to fit their needs. Jann Guthridge, the company’s IT supervisor, is always looking for the latest software that can help her company run more smoothly and efficiently.
But what good is all the software if there’s nobody in their manufacturing facility to create undercarriage products for tractors, trucks, trailers and light duty vehicles? What good is the front office if nobody’s operating the heavy machinery in the distribution center? What’s the use of a corner office if there isn’t enough skilled labor on the warehouse floor?
The same can be said in the horticulture industry as well. Last March, someone at Metrolina Greenhouses told me they were struggling to find enough reliable drivers to carry the 5,000 carts a day full of annuals they produce in their busy spring season. A seasoned truck driver can make upwards of six figures if they’re willing to put in the time and effort, but for some reason, there aren’t enough responsible, honest, hard-working people choosing this career path.
And then you look at Rhiannon Thompson, who was in our office a few weeks back, diligently training on Sage 100 Contractor to help Davidson Excavating become more efficient. And her employees were out in the field back in Indiana working on an airplane hangar. They were all working hard at the same time to make the company a success — one side running the business and the other side making the business run.
But some time in the past 40 years or so, we decided as a society that skilled labor was common and undignified. You would be considered an embarrassment if you “ended up” as a plumber or a machinist. If you didn’t have a degree from a four-year university, you were somehow less of a person or uneducated. It seems to me it’s a case of the more education people have, the less educated about the real world people have become. And that’s not to say that every single person believes that skilled laborers are beneath everyone else — but their voices have been drowned out by those who think otherwise.
Rowe experienced this first-hand. In a follow-up column (written because he had to deal with the supporters of Candidate X who couldn’t see past their black-and-white reality that if you criticize a statement, that means you must hate the person who said it with ever fiber of your being — but that’s a topic for a different column), Rowe recounted how a guidance counselor once disparaged him for even thinking about starting at community college:
Back in 1980, my high-school guidance counselor told me the local community college was “beneath my potential.” Mr. Dunbar wanted me to apply at James Madison or Penn State. He said a two-year school would put me on the wrong path, and lead to a life of “wrench-turning.” He then pointed to this poster, part of the “Push for College” campaign in the late seventies, hanging on his office wall. “Which one of these guys do you want to be, Mike?” I still remember the caption on the poster – “Work Smart, Not Hard.”
It’s disturbing that a guidance counselor would offer such advice. And Mr. Dunbar was so very wrong in the end. Rowe started off at community college due to his family’s financial situation, ended up going to a much more affordable university, and began his communications career by the time he was 23. Stardom would follow, and now he’s helping others who wish to contribute to society without having a piece of parchment telling them they’re worthy.
And it would be easy to mock the academic Mr. Dunbar and say rude things about his profession, as some commenters to Rowe’s second column did. In the comment section, Rowe gave an example of a different presidential candidate who “talked about the need for more welders and fewer philosophers.” But he explained there’s as much folly in that sort of thinking as there is in thinking that all skilled laborers are second-class citizens.
“We don’t need to promote one form of education at the expense of another,” Rowe said. “We don’t have to sing the praises of the plumber by mocking the Art Historians.”
And when it comes down to it, all Rowe wanted people to know was there’s a different way. He pointed out in another comment that Candidate X had about 40 more characters left in his Tweet where he could have said “or alternative education” after the word college. Rowe reasoned that could have been what the candidate meant, but that’s not what the candidate wrote. And Rowe was left with the conclusion he had to defend the other types of continuing education.
When we deal with our customers, we know we’re only dealing with a few facets of their organization. We’re helping them run a business with the latest software. But we see what goes on inside the greenhouses, the plants, the warehouses, the shop floors, the machine shops, and the loading docks. We know without all the skilled laborers, our jobs would be pretty pointless.
And maybe if we began to embrace skilled labor again, we wouldn’t have such a problem with unemployment or student debt. And that benefits us all in the end.