November 30, 2011

MORE ON SKILLED TRADES: In this interview with Andy Grove, he talks about his support for vocational education. “Most people don’t even realize the need for more highly trained workers. The assumption remains that technical education is for less intelligent people. The first item cut from educational budgets is vocational education. People are required to be suitably trained for their work requirements, and yet the classes that are required for this are cut to the bone. In some instances, students are halfway through the course when funding is cut and then they are sent home. We create a damned obstacle course for people who want to work! . . . We fund scholarships for students at community colleges and in other vocational programs. The value of the scholarships ranges from $500 to $5,000 per year, depending on the type of training and needs of the student. The people for whom we provide support are not those who intend to transfer to four-year universities. Rather, we are funding scholarships for those students who intend to enter a career immediately upon completion of their studies.”

Related: Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus is working with John Ratzenberger to build interest in the skilled trades.

Plus, a model trade school.

All of this is great. I should note, though — as several readers have pointed out — that you can’t just “decide” to go into skilled trades any more than you can just decide to become a lawyer or a doctor. It varies, of course, but most trades take years of practice and a considerable degree of native talent. But it’s certainly true, as Grove notes and as others have said, that we’ve systematically undervalued such work for the past 50 years or more.

UPDATE: Reader Phil Hawkins writes:

I’m 62, have a degree in Christian Education, but have been a small businessman since 1975, the last 25 years as a carpenter/remodeler. The conclusion I reached a long time ago was that few 18-year-olds in our society have enough experience to know what they would be good at and enjoy doing. I was a “brain” in high school and college, graduated with honors. Got into small business, went back to school and studied accounting. About the time I had enough hours taken to sit for the CPA exam, I figured out that I did not have enough tolerance for paperwork to do that for a living, especially dealing with the IRS. Being good at school can be deceptive in that way–I aced most of the accounting classes. Just because you’re good at the classes does not mean you will like the work. Eventually, rehabbing a couple of old houses for my family to live in got me into remodeling as a business. The accounting was useful–most contractors have little clue how to run their business, even when they’re great at doing the work. Knowing how to analyze situations and solve problems has been a plus; being able to read and follow written directions is a big help–many guys in the trades can’t, and are slow to adopt new products and methods. But most of all, I found I liked working with my hands as well as my mind. I had little background with tools, but once I learned, I became pretty good at it. And I found it very satisfying. (Not to mention, swinging a hammer is a great way to get rid of stress.)

With my own kids, we told them if they wanted to do something that required college, go for it; but don’t go to college just to be going to college. We also encouraged them in hobbies and let them work with me when possible. (Even my daughter learned to tape drywall and paint.) Over time, each had certain things he/she was good at, and was not afraid to tackle new things. The older two are established, the youngest (24) is still struggling in this economy, but has several things going that may lead to success.

Success is a process, not an event. And I took the intro-accounting sequence in college because my advisor — Jack Reese, who was the Chancellor — ordered me to. He had gotten his Ph.D in English, but as Chancellor had to teach himself accounting. I found it hugely useful, in law practice, on the boards of various nonprofits, and in my own business interests.