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Creator of "Dirty Jobs" Mike Rowe testifies to Congress (discovery.com)
667 points by goldins on May 13, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 207 comments

I could have written the bit about my grandfather.

He passed away 36 years ago this week and I was already thinking about him quite a bit.

He was the most amazing person I ever met. He came to the U.S. alone when he was 11 years old and lived with strangers until he met my grandmother at a picnic. They were married 3 weeks later. He spoke 5 languages fluently, played 6 musical instruments, never went to school a single day in his life, and he could fix anything.

Like OP, one of my most favorite days of my childhood was when I was 12 and my grandfather took me to work with him. I remember helping him carry his tools down the back steps and load them into the trunk of his Ford Galaxie 500. He taught me my all time favorite cuss word when he said, "Move all that shitcrap out of the way."

Just the other day, I drove right past that spot, stopped, and sat for a while, remembering the good old days. Today, just like OP, I just call someone to get something fixed. I've almost forgotten the joy of getting things done with my hands with the gentle guidance of a master.

Thanks for the memories, Mike Rowe and goldins.

These making skills are going to come back over the next few years - they aren't 'taught', they're learnt. And people are having to learn them RIGHT NOW, because they can't afford to call someone out to change their fuse / fix their washer. If you aren't working, you've got time to fiddle around for a while and get something fixed. Do it a few times and you start to get good at it and more confident. I'm really hopeful that it will be a positive outcome from the recession.

Yes, important point - skills are learned and you need to practice them.

I somewhat look forward to fixing stuff. I just fixed our furnace. Even if I need to buy a specialty tool, I'm usually better of getting the tool and learning how to do something myself.

I have a joke I like to tell: The first guy from the [HVAC|Electrician|Plumber] just comes out to get the check. Then next 1 or 2 might actually fix it.

Because I've had so many right out of votec kids come out, don't know what they're doing and don't fix the problem. I'm relieved when I answer the door and an older guy is there.

They really need to apprentice the young guys with older guys more than they do.

(I have some experience here, my brother is a master electrician in 2 states).

Actually, sending the least experienced technician to your house first is an intentional tactic. My father is a retired HVAC person of more than 40 years. He used to work for small family owned shops but the big companies (like gas companies) began buying up the shops in various areas. Then providing HVAC service plans via your gas bills.

They would load up on young guys and keep one or two old guys. They'd always send the young guys first because they were paid about 1/5th of the amount of the old guys per hour. If they fixed things correctly, then they made more profit. If they didn't fix things, you still paid the hourly rate anyway. After the revolving technicians of various skills attempted to fix (and charge you anyway), they would eventually send in the senior guy to actually perform the repair.

Most of the repairs are easy and minor. Nowadays furnaces have circuit boards with LED lights indicating the problem. So it's mostly just replacement of a known part. So most of the time they made a lot of profit by sending the youngest/cheapest guys.

Protip: Those LEDs are often enough for the homeowner to fix the problem themselves. Most furnace problems are pretty simple to correct once you know what's wrong. The simple controller that just blinks an error code (codes listed inside the panel) is more help than we've ever had before.

Also, the older guys are probably doing construction work and making more money.

This brings up an interesting side point. I'm not sure if it's the same everywhere, but in the state I reside there are two sides to the trade professions.

One side is the service side. This is typically non-union and employees are trained at vocational schools that specialize in some field of expertise.

The other side is the new construction side. This is typically union and employees are trained via schooling and apprenticeships provided by the union itself.

In general, the union/new construction side makes more money, but, it's harder to get into the union and you generally work less hours (and make less money) until you are a fairly senior person. The non-union/service side will make more money (and work more hours) at least initially. The service side has very high turnover of youngsters.

Sounds just like offshoring your code.

Or, for a more direct analogy, the various tiers of support you get from any help line.

> Where did Mike Rowe's grandfather learn to be a jack-of-all-trades?

Some place I did. I picked it up. I kept trying. I read books, I did it. I was also raised on a farm and took wood shop and engine shop, drafting and auto-cad (and physics, chemistry, etc).

Maybe some people just have a knack for this stuff?

(Can't reply directly to this comment)

"Maybe some people just have a knack for this stuff" is a different way of saying "I was also raised on a farm and took wood shop and engine shop."

You don't have to be raised on a farm to learn this. I was born and raised in a very large city and learned a lot of this stuff by having to work around the house to earn my allowance (mowing the lawn, painting the house, changing the oil in lawnmower & cars, helping build a new deck, etc etc). I also learned basic construction skills, metal working and welding in gasp my undergraduate art classes. This came in very handy when I had to build the walls, kitchen and bathroom in my Brooklyn loft many years later.

That "knack" could also be an affinity for tinkering & working with your hands. My brother is a self-taught auto mechanic because he is really interested in cars. Give him a free weekend and he'll rebuild his engine for the heck of it.

When we enjoy something, we do it often. When we do something often, we get better at it.

Talent is the willingness to practise.

Some people seem to be born troubleshooters they seem to be able to just know how to fix any problem especially obscure problems.

For example your car is acting up and the troubleshooter knows it's the fifth contact on a relay since it's the old original model 5b relay which he can tell from the sound of the clicking and he knows the fifth contact tends to corrode on the left side each spring when the humidity is higher. Give it a whack and a spray of contact cleaner and tells you to park it in the sun for an hour. Good as new.

The normal way is taking 20 or 30 years to know about a trade or just life in general and just seeing it so much you become a bit like the born troubleshooter but you'll never be as good.

Troubleshooting is just the art of isolation. You isolate areas of the system and experiment until the problem becomes apparent.

I think some people get inspired at an early age and tend to go on stuff like that. I didn't grow up on a farm, but I know my dad inspired me. He almost never had anyone do anything for the house, or the car or anything. I was taking vacuum cleaners apart before I was 5, finding out how they worked. I ended up going into Physics in college because I wanted to find out how everything works, as it seemed the most logical choice for learning a bit about most everything. In high school, I also took wood shop, machine shop, drafting, autocad, etc... along the way. I also repaired my own car (A jeep, so I got lots of experience :)

So, I know my dad inspired me at a very young age, and I've been mechanically inclined as long as I can remember (I'm sure watching the This Old House, the New Yankee Workshop, The Woodwright's shop, and every other sunday morning PBS show and car show with my dad probably helped)

I helped yank a motor from a wrecked stock car when I was 3 (I was running the crane while dad and his buddy had their fingers in there). I got to play with the drill press, grinder, and welder before I was in school.

No, I didnt grow up on a farm. But dad DID, he was overhauling tractor motors at 10, and driving at an obscenely young age (first ticket at 12: no license).

I knew how to drive a car before I was in high school, and was playing with carbon composites at 15 (left over b2 bits, whee).

It IS a knack for these sorts of things, but also having someone around to help get you started, combined with an interest in what ever you're working on.

This is no different than how most of you learned to program. Well, I guess it is: you're not sitting on you butt while you do it :)

> Maybe some people just have a knack for this stuff?

True, but IMO that knack has to be fostered for it to develop. If you were raised on a farm, I assume you had some guidance. I doubt that a lot of kids whose parents are software developers would go into woodworking.

You would be surprised at how many software developers have hobbies that involve working with their hands. I spend much of my free time doing wood working and am sure it's something that I would introduce my children to at a young age (as my father did with me).

You know, my dad was a very skilled woodworker and home handyman, but he passed away before he had a chance to really start teaching me very much of it.

I've always kind of wanted to get into woodworking (although it's hard right now since I have an apartment, not a house), but I'm not sure how to best start. Do you know of any good resources you could recommend for an adult who wants to get into that kind of thing?

Thanks! :)

Depends on where you live - here in NYC there's things like Makeville where you can take classes, would assume there are similar in most urban centers.

If there aren't any, it's the same as learning programming - pick a small project and look for how-tos (like this breadbox, for example: http://www.am-wood.com/nov97/bread.html) and have at it. Work your way up to more complicated things once you've got some skills and tools under your belt.

Dolls houses is something you can make with virtually no space - and because it's furniture in miniature some of what you learn can scale up when you've got more room. Things like measuring, marking, joints, and wood types all apply - if you can accurately build something at 1/12th scale you can prob build it full size. And it costs virtually zero. And your kids will LOVE you for it.

Wooden boat building is a lot of fun, and doesn't have to take a lot of space. There are kits available for beautiful kayaks and such that people have built in their apartments. Be sure to plan how to get it out of the house if you build something bigger inside :) Also, beware of potentially toxic chemicals. Some wood dust (cedar) is dangerous.

Learning a lot of these skills is easier than ever.

I wasn't raised doing a lot of around-the-house stuff, but in the past five years I've learned to do everything from recaulking a tub and rewiring lamps to fixing bicycles and repairing vintage rangefinder cameras.

I buy tools on craigslist and learn the steps online. Sometimes there's an unintended consequence to deal with (water spraying out of the sink, burned chicken, stripped set screws) that forums, skillshares, and hackerspaces are great at helping with.

None of this makes for a vocation, and I'm not advocating that people learn welding from eHow. But there's a lot to be learned from 'do it yourself' rather than 'do it for me'.

The tools are there for the properly motivated like they have never been in our entire history. The internet and social networking have made it so there is a forum for every trade, interest, or fetish. It is time to use it for more than just porn and gaming...not that there is anything right or wrong about either.

I try to force myself to learn something new before I go do something for entertainment. I will watch one MIT video lecture on physics or something to that effect, or research something that I am curious about. Then when I am done I can go game or watch something mindless if I choose so.

It makes it hard when I have to explain to people that I am self employed and I do about 5-10 different things...just depends on what is paying...most people just don't understand.

That's a good point, but I'm not sure to what extent it's true; Where did Mike Rowe's grandfather learn to be a jack-of-all-trades? Most likely from his father or grandfather. If parents today choose to be "less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought" then chances are so will their kin.

It took me three tries to fix the wax gasket under my toilet (symptom of a worn-out wax gasket: water leaks out from the bottom of the toilet whenever you flush), but I did it out of curiosity, wanting to be more like my dad who fixed everything in our house, and because I didn't want to be the guy who called the landlord to fix every little thing... I think more than anything, the feeling of control over my surroundings is what pushes me to do as much handywork as I can.

Over ten years ago (when I was in high school) the school I went to ended the metal shop class that I took. We were told that it was ended because of a lack of funding to support the class. Soon after they closed the class the school sold off the metal lathes and CNC machines. It was pretty sad.

I agree that outsourcing and manufacturing automation has had an effect on the size of our skilled labor workforce. But let us not forget that our underfunded schools are another part of the problem.

our underfunded schools

Sigh. At what level of funding will you finally consider it adequate?

I'll settle for "not another 20% cut this year".

(hey downvoters -- that's what's happening to my kid's school. It's a little personal)

My parent's school taxes were $1,800 in 2000. Today? $6,500.

From 2006 when I bought my home to today, my school taxes are up over 60%. This year, the school wants a 6% increase. The library district 25%. My pay has been frozen for 3 years.

Of course I live in New York, where the teacher's union essentially governs the place. During those timeframes the local schools have gotten worse by just about every measure. So the technique of paying 20% of the teachers $100k+ isn't working.

If that's what's happening in your area, you need to understand that yours is a one-in-a-million area. Where I live, and everywhere that I'm aware of, has monotonically increasing annual school budgets.

Or are you one of the people that counts a reduction of the proposed increase as a "cut", so even though you're getting more than last year, it's lower than what you asked for, so you consider it a cut?

Nope, those are real cuts. And really, it's at the very least, 1 in 50, since the budget at the state level in WA is being balanced by axing a lot of school funding. Federal funding is also way down this year.

Our school district has had to cut teachers for the last few years(I think 5 by now). They do it based on seniority, within each endorsement. Now, there are no teachers with less than 14 years of teaching experience in the district.

Healthcare costs are increasing at a rate of 15% a year, give or take. Historically, teacher contracts lean towards lower pay and an 80/20 split or so on healthcare so the district really eats a lot of that increase. Plus you have contracted cost of living raises.

So, a 2% increase in funding is typically a cut in "real" terms, even if inflation were under 2% (which it isn't), the grab bag of costs for municipalities has a lot of healthcare and very little consumer electronics, so inflation of school district costs of typically much higher than 2%.

So, basically, yeah, this is not unusual, not 1-in-a-million, go to your local school board meetings and you will likely find them struggling with budget cuts and layoffs.

In a monotonically increasing population, a monotonically increasing budget can still result in cuts in important metrics like per-pupil spending.

In principle, yes. But that's not what's happening -- at least in my district, where I know the numbers. The per-student expense is also increasingly monotonically.

If only that were the case everywhere. As far as I know from the teachers among my friends and family, in my state budgets are being cut, class sizes are increasing (there are more students than desks in many classes), teacher count is decreasing, the curriculum is being dumbed down, etc.

class sizes are increasing

You seem to be perpetuating the idea that class size determines educational quality, and it ain't true. Indeed, it seems that many people take class size as a proxy for the quality. But it's false.

If you go looking for actual data on the relationship between size and educational achievement, you'll find that it's pretty inconclusive. Nobody has been able to show a strong correlation linking smaller classes with better learning. The one exception is a study showing that in the specific population of "at-risk kids" (meaning, those who are probably not getting educational support at home), having smaller classes does help. But for the mainstream, nobody has been able to prove that investing in more teachers to shrink the size of classes has any positive impact.

Continuing to harp on class size is part of the problem. It wastes money, preventing it from being employed in areas where it could do real good.

I think you'd be hard pressed to demonstrate that students sitting on the floor or at a side table facing away from the teacher because there aren't enough desks leads to a quality education. It's nearly impossible for one teacher to control a class of 40+ teenagers, especially at-risk teenagers. My parents are both teachers, and they don't have time to provide individualized feedback to their students because their class sizes are increasing and their preparation time has been eliminated.

students sitting on the floor or at a side table

That's not a class size or teacher problem, that's a furniture problem.

and their preparation time has been eliminated

I call BS. Does somebody come home with them and prevent them from preparing. As a manager and software developer, I spend a fair amount of my own time researching a prepping. Why should teachers not do the same?

I respectfully believe you are grossly misinformed. Do you know any teachers personally? It varies across the country, but local teachers are paid half the salary of managers and software developers after receiving the same amount of education, yet they're expected to spend every waking hour dealing with students. Here are some concrete numbers for a junior high teacher:

7 classes per term, average of 40 students per class = 280 students total. There are 7 classes per day of 45 minutes each, with 5 minutes between classes and a 30 minute lunch. Teachers have to meet with students before and/or after school and monitor students between classes, so they're typically at school and busy for 8 hours or more per day with no breaks except maybe lunch. You try locking yourself in a building with 1000 or more shouting young teenagers for 8 hours straight without so much as a bathroom break.

If a teacher assigns a homework assignment every day and spends three hours per day (at home) grading assignments, then each student gets less than one minute of attention per assignment. Every student has his or her own points of confusion on the subject matter, which cannot be addressed in just one minute per day, and using class time to broadly address the questions of a few students slows down the students who don't have the same questions.

Notice I didn't include any time for designing lesson plans and presentations, writing grant proposals, creating assignments, or meeting with parents, let alone spending time with their families (which often enough just doesn't happen).

Regarding "furniture problems:" desks are a fixed size, they have to be spaced apart enough for students and teachers to reach them without tripping, and the classroom also needs presentation space at the front, a teacher's desk, and storage space. Fire codes specify maximum occupancy limits for rooms. There's only so much room available for desks.

Maybe you have to see the combined exasperation and exhaustion of an overworked and underpaid teacher to appreciate the level of decay present in our public school systems. This is an area where averages and statistics are misleading.

If that school was in CA, we've been increasing spending for decades without any benefit. Since increasing spending didn't help, any harm from cutting spending is sabotage or incompetence by the public school folk.

We're spending enough money, so if you're not getting what you want, you need to talk to the folks who are in charge of turning that money into decent education.

Nope, Washington State. I'm already volunteering in the classroom, working on getting the library sorted out, figuring out where we can help with enrichment classes next year (where enrichment == not reading/riting/rithmatic), and getting the chairs recovered because the cushions are worn out.

And they (the state legislature) is trying to cut all funding for our school secretary and remove any janitorial services. Because, apparently, they don't realize that the secretaries actually run the damn place.

I'm not sure where you are, but my experience is that most of the teachers are pretty good and care for the kids. We've got one that we wish we could ease out the door, but we've got a few that are just great. That is, if we get to keep them, because their hours will be cut and the district reshuffled.

> I'm not sure where you are, but my experience is that most of the teachers are pretty good and care for the kids.

I didn't suggest otherwise.

I said that in CA, like many other places in the US, we've been increasing spending on public education for decades and haven't gotten any benefit from that extra money.

It may well be that this money never made it to the classroom and that the classroom is being cut while "the black hole" is being protected.

My point is that enough money is going into "the system" as a whole. You're saying "enough money" isn't going where it's needed. That's a different problem, one that won't be solved by adding money.

Doesn't it bother you that your kids are being used as an excuse to line someone's pockets? (And no, I don't mean tax payers.)

So, Who's pockets are being lined?

It's not the food service, their contract is really crappy. I'd be happy to cut it, but there are enough kids on free lunch that it's really important. It's not the teachers, they keep getting cut. It's not the administrators, there aren't that many of them, and they've been cutting right along with the teachers. And the administrative load doesn't get smaller, since there are an ever multiplying number of federal compliance issues. It's not maintenance, as they don't have the resources they need to keep the aging infrastructure going. They could double their staff for a year and still not get through stuff. It's not transportation, they're getting hit by fuel costs. It's not the secretaries, they're getting hit too. The text books, meh, most of them are pretty old. Maybe it's technology, but that's a separate levy and a different pool of money.

We've got old buildings, one should have been closed years ago. That could save a teacher or two per year, but there's community pressure to keep it open.

Frankly, we spend less on education here per student per year than I would spend to send a kid to daycare for the same time. And they're expected to learn enough to compete in the modern world.

You should take a look at what is being spent on teacher benefits. The school district in my hometown (Anchorage, Alaska) signed a contract whereby they're obligated to pay $1180/month for healthcare for each teacher.

Yeah, healthcare costs have been out of control for a decade. But that's not the teachers' fault. I don't know Alaska but that seems high, Anchorage should get a better deal with their provider.

> It's not the food service, their contract is really crappy.

Are you confusing the amount of money spent with the amount of benefit delivered?

I note that you're looking at the school level and you're guessing at spending.

Let's look at it from the other side. Suppose that you wanted to educate 25 kids. Would it cost more than $187k? I ask because $7,500 * 25 is $187,500.


When the average person who comes out of it can get themselves a living-wage job without loading up on debt for "higher education" in order to learn a marketable skill?

High schools used to concentrate on teaching young adults what they needed to know in order to survive independently. At some point they stopped doing that, perhaps because they're still trying to teach them to read. But that seems like a problem.

So how is this change in strategy a "funding" problem?

Funding is being allocated to the wrong areas. Therefore it is a funding problem.

I would like to see a breakdown of financial distribution between skills-building classes versus special education. I imagine that metal shops are closing due to legal liability while special ed/needs spending is up due to legal obligation.

++, when I was in local politics we had a single student who cost the district 100k a year, several more at 20-50k, and the average spending per student was around 8k.

Federal and state legislators can pass an unfunded mandate ("I will not stand by while we ignore these kids"), do a photo op, then cut the funding going to local districts and take credit for balancing the state budget.

I'm not advocating eugenics or anything, just pointing out that after all the rhetoric and grandstanding, it's the school districts that wind up eating it.

My first thought on reading Rowe's speech was this might be a symptom of public education itself. Do-gooders using other people's money to push their agenda (higher education is the American dream) on other people. It means the people making decisions are disconnected from the outcome and reality. The result is a distortion of of the market, and also the distortion of culture that not getting higher education is disrespected (as Rowe says). Unfortunately, Rowe wants to use the government to push his agenda.

Every plan of action is somebody's agenda[1]. Some are better than others, and whatever the best plan is, it's still going to be someone's agenda. Government can't exist without "pushing" some agenda.

[1] agenda - A list or program of things to be done or considered.

The difference is using large amounts of other peoples' money.

Touches on a symptom. The issue is surprisingly complex.

My sister has done workman's compensation insurance and remarked that all the welders were out of work. (or a large number of them). I mentioned that there was a welder shortage in California and she suggested I mention that on some of the forums where they hang out. What I discovered was that there was a number of vocal proponents who argued they wouldn't work in California for the shit rate that was being offered. Instead they would rather be out of work than devalue their time.

So its a fair point, if enough skilled people stay out of the workforce then the economic demand will cause prices to rise to meet the market price. In California its interesting that the tax payers take on that burden and the shortfall threatens the teachers who then jump on to TV ads with their persistent message of non-support.

The question of illegal immigrants came up too but if you look you will find that a skilled welder / carpenter / mason has opportunity in Mexico that they don't need to emigrate for, so its not the issue one might suspect.

You get substitution effects, people substituting unskilled or lightly skilled labor instead. This results in problems later but some of those people will go on to become more skilled which will increase the pool.

A couple of people have mentioned the 'status' question, but from an economic standpoint the pricing of wages should be based on the ability of the population to supply qualified labor not on how 'important' they perceive the job to be. Its not always done that way but it does take personal bias out of the valuation question.

Mike's comment that we need more people in the trades is also tempered by manufacturers who would rather 'fix by replacement' than 'fix by repair' their items. They see someone with a broken washing machine as a motivated buyer, not someone with a problem they can fix. It would be helpful if congress mandated that the information to fix things was made available for free. (think service manuals) While it would burden the manufacturer to write such manuals it would enable repairs and a 'green' industry of keeping equipment running rather than in the dump.

I was hoping that one of the things that would come out of the Auto-melt-down would have been a vehicle that was bare bones, dead simple to repair, and inexpensive. There is demand for such a vehicle but no one is looking to meet it yet.

So "we need more skilled tradesman" as a call to arms has a number of things that it carries with it. I didn't see that the complexity or at least the interconnectivity of it all has been well represented to Congress.

The welder's union is the good kind of union, a guild that ensures that every licensed welder is thoroughly competent. That restricts supply and keeps wages high.

As an occasional employer of welders, I appreciate their union. Bad welding is really dangerous, and you can't tell the difference by casual inspection, so I'm happy to pay a premium for certified welders.

But should the certification be done by a "union" or an external body? A "union", after all, has screwy incentives.

"The question of illegal immigrants came up too but if you look you will find that a skilled welder / carpenter / mason has opportunity in Mexico that they don't need to emigrate for, so its not the issue one might suspect."

I don't think the issue is with ILLEGAL immigrants, just immigrants. Trades are something everyone can get into either by just starting entry level or learn for very cheap (and they may have learned back in the country of origin). They are also willing to work for much less because they know they don't have the money to go to a college and get a higher education to obtain a higher paying/less laborious job. So they are very happy to take a moderate paying job and will work for less than someone who feels they should make more because they may have had the opportunity to pursue another career.

A friend of mine is a landscaper and became one when he moved out of southern california and made good money. Moving back here to southern california though he had to change professions because he could barely make minimum wage doing that here. His only option if he wants to return to that profession is to go get a degree to become a landscape architect.

That's simply not true -- there is a reason why trades have apprenticeships, journeyman, and master levels. The fact that you can put a toilet in doesn't make you a master plumber. Immigrant labor floods the low end of the market and starves off the supply of new laborers to the higher end because there's no career path for an illegal, casual worker. That's why a skilled master plumber often can get away with charging $150/hr.

Frankly, white collar jobs like IT are if anything, easier than most trade jobs. Get me someone who can read at a high school level with a reasonable work ethic, and I'll show you a very good IT Pro in 3-5 years. Ditto for programming.

Legality of immigration aside, illegal employment is always a factor in the labor market. I'm glad you don't blame the migrant workers for it.

...a vehicle that was bare bones, dead simple to repair, and inexpensive...

That vehicle is anything built before the ~1970s. They're plentiful, and not many people want them. :-)

(I don't believe that there's a demand for a modern, bare-bones car. There's a demand for ever cheaper, air conditioned cars with power windows, intermittent wipers, power steering, etc. though)

Ever seen a crash test of a car build before the 70s?

There are more reasons to not want one of them than simply the lack of conveniences ;)

I still don't understand why people seem to think that modern cars are so difficult to work on compared to old junk. The onboard diagnostics is standardized and pretty good on most cars; that makes obvious many of your computer problems, timing problems and fuel/air problems.

I mean, most of my experience is working on fuel-injected stuff... but have you ever tried to rebuild a carb? it's damn difficult to get right, and there's no computer telling you when it's correct; you have to essentially guess.

Having done extensive work on both old ('64 Ford Falcon, '68 Ford LTD) and new ('99 Eclipse, '00 S4) old cars are WAY easier to work on.

The first issue is simplicity and access. Old cars have big engine bays with everything spread out, easy to see, easy to get at. There are very few wires and it's pretty obvious (to a gearhead) what each component, wire, hose, etc... does. New cars have way more "stuff" packed into way less space. You can't see most things, and can't get at most things. There's a million wires, mostly run through harnesses, and plugged into various computers, etc...

Rebuilding a carb, while not easy, is easier than trying to diagnose if your poorly running engine is because of: bad MAF, bad O2 sensor(s) (some cars have 4-6 of these), bad O2 sensor wires (good luck tracking those through the various wire looms, etc...), bad computer(s), bad injector(s), bad FP, etc... Troubleshooting a throttle cable is easy compared to issues with a drive-by-wire system.

New cars are safer, perform better, handle better, etc... but working on them is a pain.

I have a counter point for ya:

Coming from an (amateur) electronics background, I can say the mechanical aspects seem just as opaque and confusing.

For example: Most electric systems can be tested with a multimeter and needlenose pliers. Repairs don't get more complex than soldering.

There's a garage full of specialized tools needed for the mechanical side of things. Checking fuel pressure, removing tires, etc.

Yes but even with modern cars you still need all the mechanical things, and things get way beyond a multimeter and a soldering iron on modern cars pretty quickly. There are many black-box computers, many complex sensors, thousands of wires that are next-to-impossible to trace/track through wire looms, the firewall, etc... I'm handy with a multimeter and a soldering iron, but still:)

You just need a diagram...I replaced all the wiring on a 1993 Mazda 626 from the front bumper to the dash. 4 big looms. If you have the "real" shop manual tracing problems is easy...not the Haynes or Chiltons (I have the original shop manuals for 2 of my 4 cars, including the electrical supplements, all wire color codings and methods to test every sensor are in the books.

I will not argue that fixing the main relay on my father's 1962 Thunderbird was way easier (I won't even get into the difference between dropping the fuel tank vs. a newer car) I believe for the most part newer cars are not much harder to work on. I really like what Volkswagen did with their VAG-Com stuff, really makes troubleshooting easy...like stupid easy, plus it interfaces with the laptop for datalogging.

I guess what I mean is most of those are closed systems which you need to replace entirely when they malfunction.

That's the best part of mechanical components for me: When it fails, often they just need to be cleaned.

I suspect that dirtying mechanical components have a higher TCO and/or failure frequency than total-failure electrical components.

I've recently had occasion to work on

1986 and 1990 Honda Civics: a PITA: just no space to turn a wrench in the engine compartment. Replacing a radiator took an absurd amount of time (and oh my aching back!)

1998 Toyota Sienna: replacing the radiator (w/engine cold) took 30 minutes the first time, 15 the second and third. My 13yo son displayed some interest so we did it an extra time :-). Changing the rear-cyl-bank O2 sensor (wedged against the firewall and crossmember) was a PITA.

1995 Camry w/same V6 engine as above Sienna: changing the same rear-bank O2 sensor was a breeze (bigger engine compartment).

Access is the key.

BTW I own two 1973 Toyota trucks, bought because they're simple to work on and exempt from CA smog testing (points ignition might survive the anticipated solar EMP!). And I agree that working with carbs is a black art with minimal feedback available, and EFI (real-time feedback!) is a major advance. Maybe EFI engines will "find their way" into these trucks :-)

my experience has been that the ease with which mechanical work can be done is directly proportional to the quality of your manual.

During the first .com, I owned a '92 bmw 325is. Fun car, but don't take it to a mechanic. I mean, parts weren't /that/ much more expensive, but mechanic time and parts markup was, I assume for the "well, if you can afford a bmw, you can help pay for my kid's braces" effect.

First I got the Chilton's brand "book of lies" and yeah, figuring out how to do even simple mechanical things was pretty difficult. I ended up wiring a bunch of stuff in with 24awg wire.

Later I bought the 'bently publishing' manual for the thing, and god damn. everything was really simple, and it all fit perfectly.

I know some people have gone from EFI to carbs on some motorcycles (KTM's early EFI offerings being the few I'm familiar with). I'd imagine it would be possible to go the other way, although I'm unsure of the difficulty of it.

"I mean, most of my experience is working on fuel-injected stuff... but have you ever tried to rebuild a carb? it's damn difficult to get right, and there's no computer telling you when it's correct; you have to essentially guess."

I tell mechanics around me this all the time (North Idaho)...I personally can rebuild and troubleshoot fuel injection with no issues, I have no idea how to tune a carb. Why? Simply because I haven't had to do that yet. People seem to be scared of anything with a computer, its always the ECU they replace first for some reason...usually the problem is a sensor or vacuum leak (from my experience with things).

Older cars are easier to work on because you typically have more room and fewer custom tools, plus you need very little electronics knowledge. I was an electronics tech before I started working on my own cars so I guess that helps.

The Dacia Logan targets exactly that market and has sold well, although it's not available in the US. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Dacia_Logan It has most of the features you list (not sure about power windows).

In Western Europe, the built-for-developing-countries, ultra-cheap, barebone Dacia cars are a tremendous success. There is definitely a strong demand for 8000 euros sedans with a large trunk.

I don't think the people in skilled trades really want congress to fix the skill gap problem. Just about every state sets incredibly high bars to be licensed. To be a licensed plumber in Massachusetts you have to pass a test (with only 70% correct!) and then work for 4 years before you can apply for a license. Plumbers around Boston get $100/hr and are hard to find. If Congress wants to allow more people to do skilled work they could mandate lower requirements. Kansas and Pennsylvania, for example, do not require plumbing licenses and I can personally vouch that toilets in those states do in fact work.

A few years ago, we had some remodeling work done on our house. A union plumber came in on a Saturday to do the plumbing portion for cash. He told me that his most recent union-sponsored continuing education class was a call-to-action on the shortage of young plumbers. The union was worried that it could not find enough young people interested in the trade! I had always regarded the unions as exclusionary, but they're now worried about their own survival due to attrition (well, at least the Cleveland-area plumbers union).

This same guy noted that the real concern wasn't residential plumbing. This work is fairly low-skilled. The issue is that large commercial buildings require much skill and experience. Perhaps a solution would be to stratify the definition of "plumber" to allow those with a lower-level license to do easy work. Those with the upper-level licenses could do the more complicated stuff.

The union is worried about the flux on new plumbers but your individual plumber would be happy to be the last plumber alive in Cleveland as he could name whatever rate he wanted.

I think you are exactly right about the need for two tiers in the trades. The wiring in a house is vastly different from even the local supermarket that has three phase power to the lights controlled by contactors.

Maybe by adding a category of "professional" plumbers and electricians you could solve the prestige problem. Currently, if someone says they are a plumber you don't know if they clean out drains or maintain a hospital's systems.

> The union is worried about the flux on new plumbers but your individual plumber would be happy to be the last plumber alive in Cleveland as he could name whatever rate he wanted.

This is one of those classic economics/free market sayings that shows who wrong the theory can be. That's like saying I would be happy if I was the only guitarist or only web developer in the world, which is patently untrue. Maybe the plumber enjoys what he does, finds value in it, and wants to teach others how to do it. Maybe, god forbid, he doesn't want to make as much money as possible at the expense of others. Crazy, right? I'm glad there are other musicians and web developers, not only is the world better for it, I am better at both for it. Looking at things your way leaves so much out of the equation and ultimately leads to a conclusion that is bizarre, detached from reality, and incorrect.

>That's like saying I would be happy if I was the only guitarist or only web developer in the world, which is patently untrue.

I actually think yo would be pretty happy. You would automatically be a rock star. Sure, some needs would be unfulfilled, but overall the benefit of being the only one is incredible.

Maybe. Or if you were the only one, maybe the world would decide to listen to something other than rock music and you'd have nothing.

Similarly, if the number of plumbers drops too low, people will concentrate on buying cheap/disposable/replaceable substitutes for what they fix.

True. I'm assuming other things are equal.

> The wiring in a house is vastly different from even the local supermarket that has three phase power to the lights controlled by contactors.

The difference being, when a plumber screws up, the house floods. When an electrician screws up it burns down, possibly with you and your children inside.

I'll take my overqualified electricians, thanks.

I don't think anyone's talking about allowing ineptitude at either the basic or advanced level of licensing. My uncle is a 60-something plumber who primarily performs minor residential repairs. Every year, he has to go to continuing education on building code changes. He hasn't done new construction work in years, and most of the building codes have to do with commercial structures anyway. He would gladly forgo his ability to work on new construction and large structures if it meant that he didn't have to attend such extensive training sessions. Surely, one could learn a subset of all plumbing/electrical/etc. knowledge and still be competent for a subset of all work in the genre.

Perhaps union management is concerned that, if there were too few plumbers, the union would no longer be deemed necessary by its members? Also, are union pension plans fully-funded, or do they rely upon contributions from current members? I have no idea.

> Perhaps a solution would be to stratify the definition of "plumber"

It already has been. The really skilled people are called pipefitters and hate being called plumbers. Most industrial work is done by pipefitters, and plumbers do residential/commercial work.

The electrical trade splits the same way. I don't know that there's a specific name, but there is a de facto split between residential/light commercial and industrial wiring.

The codes are quite different (more complex, more exacting) for one thing, in the industrial setting.

Ah the merits of off-the-books weekend work. I had a badly rutted moderately long driveway with drainage problems. One Saturday a Caltrans operator brought his grader over and for $1200, including a couple of truck loads of crushed rock, I got a driveway worthy of a public road.

Enterprise plumbers?

Nah, that would just be a residential plumber that you have to buy through a VAR for 100x the normal price...

I was planning to learn to design septic systems until I learned that you had to apprentice for four years (and they wouldn't acknowledge the ten years I'd been working for my dad off and on) or possess a Bachelor's degree (or have a plumber's license)... There's only a handful of these guys left in the state of Arkansas... most of them in their fifties and about to retire...

One of my luckier breaks was going to a highschool specializing in voc-ed. "Vocational Education" was the euphemism used to describe skills that you didn't learn in white collar jobs or in college/university.

While there I got to take classes in drafting, machining, and electronics (real electronics -- we etched our own boards!). I regret that I didn't spend any time in the auto shop. The students that excelled there did routine maintenance on all of the teachers' cars!

Years later I was an intern at Orbital Sciences, building a satellite (http://oceancolor.gsfc.nasa.gov/SeaWiFS/SEASTAR/SPACECRAFT.h...).

One day I was chatting with my mentor/boss about building a testing harness. A physical one with dangly bits and wires. I don't remember the details of the conversation, but I remember a compliment he gave me -- to this day, one of my most cherished:

"I know you'll do fine: you've burnt yourself on soldering irons."

At least among those rocket scientists, the ability to actually build stuff is held in high regard.

I took drafting classes in high school voc-ed and learned far more than in my college mechanical engineering drafting class. That has served me quite well as an engineer. Equally useful were the metals class in middle school (where we learned to weld at age 13! you bet your ass they don't do that anymore, too "dangerous") and stagecraft in high school. It's too bad those kind of 'blue collar' classes are getting phased out, becuase they drove me into engineering far more than science or math ever did.

It's not just the technical side of trade classes, it's breaking out of the abstractness of most education that's also valuable.

I went to a high school with a remarkably well funded theater and stagecraft department thanks to a very generous alum. We worked under professional supervision (pro sound, lights, etc.) on professional equipment (250k sound system). I was in charge of sound for most of my years there.

That class taught me all about responsibility and professionalism. You have to be on the ball and super-prepared for a live show to work. When crises happen in the middle, you have to keep calm, make other people feel secure, and handle them professionally, and quickly.

That skill's come in handy post-high school. When I was starting out in software, in charge of a website that made a bunch of cash that needed to run 24/7, the nerves I learned back in school helped me stay calm and in control.

They still do welding in high schools.

Drafting was incredibly fun, mostly because we got to sit around BSing while still turning out these oddly attractive little drawings. My favorite part was always drawing the dimension lines/arrows.

Had a similar experience--I went to a normal-ish high school, but my dad made sure I learned (at some points forcibly) how yo not make a complete idiot of myself around electronics, cars, carpentry, plumbing, etc.

Knew there was a reason I liked you, sanj. :p

I read through the other comments before commenting here. There is an interesting issue regarding the distinction between status of an occupation and the pay of an occupation (which has much to do with schoolteacher pay, as it happens). But as to pay, currently job classifications involving related work have higher pay if they require higher education degrees as a barrier to entry than if they don't. One example that is familiar to industrial psychologists and individual differences psychologists is the pay of engineers and technicians in the same industrial category. AT EVERY LEVEL OF TESTABLE INDIVIDUAL ABILITY, the economic return from becoming an engineer is better than the economic return from becoming technician. Even if what the engineer does on the job is decide that a key technician has to accomplish a task (that is, even if the technician is essential to the process in real-world terms), the engineer will be paid more. This is why there is demand for degrees from second-tier and third-tier engineering programs that look little better academically than glorified high schools, and appear to offer less hands-on technical training than a well designed technical certificate program. Where a worker can fit in the division of labor in a company makes a difference in the worker's pay, and people pursuing education or training look for what will help them make the most pay.

Mike Rowe's thought-provoking testimony to Congress submitted here identifies a problem, but it's not clear that the solution he suggests will work as well as simply reforming immigration laws in the United States in the direction of opening up work-related immigrant visas for skilled trades workers. Perhaps the workers who can best improve their own lot in life as tradesmen in the United States economy are those who have already invested in learning a trade in another country, and who perhaps are learners of English as a second language who might have particular difficulty pursuing a postsecondary academic degree in the United States. That may be the way to fill the skilled trade gap in the United States.

I agree with loosening immigration controls.

Another thing that would help would be for government to get out of meddling in the higher education market. It's so bad now that people think they have a right to higher education (I'm not sure how lower education became a right). Politicians need to grasp that there is a limited supply of education, and a limited demand for the skills that it produces. By subsidizing it, you get a lot of highly skilled labor that there's no demand for. That's a big part of the "skill gap".

I'm curious how schoolteacher salaries affect salaries in other occupations. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Thanks for asking the follow-up question. What I mean is that what status people perceive from being in one occupation rather than another is one of several factors that enter into how much pay is necessary to induce people to seek entry into that occupation. A typical online discussion of why one occupation has a higher average rate of pay than another occupation will omit any mention of at least three or four of the factors already identified way back when by Adam Smith.


1. Wages will vary with the ease or hardship, the cleanliness or dirtiness, the honorableness, or dishonorableness of the employment. 2. Wages will vary with the easiness and cheapness, or the difficulty and expense of learning a trade. 3. Wages in different occuptions will vary with the regularity or irregularity of employment. 4. Wages will vary with the degree of trust reposed in an occupation. 5. Wages will vary according to the probability of success in the occupation.

One paradox under the "honorableness" factor that schoolteachers encounter is seeking societal respect (which I would certainly agree an effective teacher well deserves), because if societal respect for teachers goes up, then relative to all other occupations pay for schoolteaching is likely to go down. The "probability of success in the occupation" criterion has some interesting interactions with both honorableness and pay, because managerial policies regarding schoolteachers can either set up lockstep promotion schemes based on years of teaching, with tenure, a high degree of job security, or classic "at will" employment (rarely encountered among public schoolteachers after they have taught for a few years). Management being able to distinguish effective teachers from less effective teachers, reducing the job security of ineffective teachers, should result in higher pay for teachers, other things being equal. Current policies in most states of the United States strongly emphasize job security for public schoolteachers over distinguishing the most and least effective teachers.

P.S. This madness


I was just reading via Google News is one reason I despair when I think about current school district management practices. Work rules designed to protect job security on the basis of seniority, and qualifications for jobs in schools based on higher education credentials rather than on performance, hurt everyone in the system--including teachers.

The video is on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3h_pp8CHEQ0 I think it's a little more meaningful for this kind of content, and the jokes are funnier :)

Thanks for the link!

It's interesting that our solution to "nobody wants to do physical labor" is to outsource it to other countries and our solution to "nobody wants to do professional knowledge work . . . for cheap" is to outsource it to other countries and supplement with H1Bs as much as possible. What I find odd is the difference in response to each.

If you're a professional that works with knowledge, you're told "hey, that's the world market, baby -- if you can't compete on a fifth of your salary, then to hell with you".

If you're a professional that works in labor/manual work, we involve unions and national programs to re-invigorate interest in the field of welding or laying pipes or wiring homes and treat it like news that the national flag has just been replaced.

I find both a concern, yet am bothered by the seeming double-standard.

As a personal anecdote: My grandfather was a pacifist who none-the-less served his country when called during WWII. He was an engineer who was responsible for a lot of stuff in Anchorage during the time. (He had an amazing panoramic photo set he took of Valdeze back when it was whole). He was a pianist. He was a chemist. He touch mathematics in college. He threw discus in college track and field. His home was filled with books on chemistry, math, history, physics, geography. I grew up surrounded by stacks of OMNI, National Geographic, Discovery, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and plenty of other great reads. And for a living, he chose to build houses. He became a general contractor who didn't really contract out that much work. He did almost everything himself, except pour foundations and wire the homes. He built beautiful homes that often took two to four years and cost a few million dollars (and some people hired him more than once to build their homes over the decades as their tastes evolved). He just loved building stuff and working outside and he did it his entire life. I was also fortunate to spend many years of my childhood going onto his job-site with him day after day and goofing around, helping, watching. There's a lot to be said for loving your job and doing it excellently.

It's about status. Americans want to be VP's, lawyers, doctors, etc.

And parents want their kids to be these things. What parent wants to see their kid working 12 hours a day for peanuts and low prestige.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Millionaire_Next_Door

Actually skilled blue collar type workers make a lot of money. If they also have business/management skills they can make tons of money. I have a friend who was in CS in undergrad until he realized that he can't sit inside all day. So, he dropped out of college and learned concrete (did go back and get a civil engineering degree). He's now next in line to own the concrete business he's a part of when the current own retires. Sometimes he works 12 hour days and he usually comes home dirty, but he and his family also have more money than they know what to do with.

BTW, he's also that kind of person who can fix/build anything as mentioned in the original article.

Similarly, my father was a fix-anything type, but also knew how to manage and do public relations. He got much more money than my mother, with masters in education and psychology.

As far as I know, masters in psych or education, doesn't necessarily get you much in the way of pay.

We had a plumber come out to the house for a repair - it was $170 callout, and $15 for a part. He was here about 20 minutes (yes, there was drive time too, but they drive to multiple places). I wouldn't exactly call that 'peanuts'.

I know (at least I think) you weren't trying to say it wasn't worth it but I think it bears pointing out that you are paying for his experience, not the 20 minute fix. It's akin to paying a hair stylist not for what they cut off but for what they leave on.

I wasn't quite saying that, but this notion of "skilled trades are working for peanuts" isn't 100% true. Granted, if that guy only has 2 callouts per week, he's in trouble, but I suspect he had a few more than that.

Yes, I'm paying for his experience, etc. I know that. What's also a little odd to me is that this doesn't work for developers as well, but I think it's mostly because you typically call out a developer for development - before there's an emergency of some sort (broken toilet, in my case). People often want to haggle with me on my pricing but they wouldn't dream of trying to get the plumber to work at half-rate.

That said, I needed a root canal recently. First place I went to (after my tooth cracked) quoted $2200. I went someplace else who did it for $1400. So, even amongst skilled professionals, there's variance.

Experience and availability. You wouldn't be paying $170 for 20 minutes of their time (closer to an hour or more, really, given driving & whatnot) if you had to wait a month for them to fit you into their schedule, because they'd be outrageously rich if they were that busy. The prices go up because they need to eat during slow periods.

"If you're a professional that works in labor/manual work, we involve unions..."

We involve unions? Unions were formed by the workers in various professions. 'We' didn't do that - people in those professions did. If there aren't unions in knowledge worker fields it's because knowledge workers aren't forming unions. Unions to my knowledge don't wait for some outside authority to allow them to exist - if they had done that they'd have never formed.

So to the extent we have a double standard because some professions have unions that'll fight for them and some don't, that's on the people in those left-out professions to do something.

This is about money and status.

College is higher status than vocational school.

A professional job is higher status that a trade.

The money is not fantastic right out of school. You have to apprentice and keep working your way up and taking tests, etc.

The job is dirty, you will hurt your back, etc, eventually (more when rather than if).

So, if I'm a kid, making a decision about whether to go college or votech, I'm logically going to choose college if I can (higher status, lower chance of injury, probably more money).

When thinking about status, imagine a daughter telling her mom about her new fiance. Compare plumber to lawyer. Brick mason to dentist. Programmer to Marketing VP (yes programming is low status, that's why it's called software engineering now, see Domestic Engineering or Sanitation Engineer).

If you want to earn a lot in a trade you _must_ start you own business. Depending on the trade you need a large amount of capital. So the _best_ you can do is have your name on the truck. You can make a lot of money.

I have a cousin with a succesful electrcial business, of course now he's a real estate developer and drives a lexus (again, see status above). My brother has just gone into business and so I hear a lot of his woes.

I can afford a Lexus and my back doesn't hurt and I'm not dirty. So...I like Mike but this seems to be a case of "I don't want to do that job, but someone has to."

We'll probably see something like the "Polish Plumber" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_Plumber. A lot of immigrants are going into the trades (see drywall and landscaping).

So, as immigrants before them (like my ancestors, and as others have mentioned) they go into the trades b/c it's the highest paying work they can get.


The Millionaire Next Store is a good book about status vs wealth.

One week in Toronto, there was a massive snow storm. I lived in the suburb of Oakville, and when I got to the commuter train station in the morning, I discovered that the service had been canceled. They were running replacement buses, but the buses couldn't carry that many people. It was chaos.

I spotted someone I knew from my Financial Modelling days, a LBO entrepreneur I will call "T." T was into buying and selling companies. Unlike the typical cost-cutting LBO types, T was a marketing specialist who thrived on identifying brands where company management were operations focused and had dropped the ball on marketing.

T was also a deadhead who once told me that money really does change your life: He and his wife could fly to Grateful Dead concerts instead of driving the VW bus of their college years.

T could afford a limo and driver, but his wife drops him at the train station every morning, because they only own one car. Even in a snow emergency, T was not fighting for a cab, he was trying to get on a bus. We linked arms and charged, and wound up in adjacent seats.

He was pleased to see I had made it up to home ownership, and that I was reading a book about personal finance, "The Richest Man in Babylon." He told me about a book he said was the best book ever written about money, "The Millionaire Next Door."

When we got to Toronto, I decided work could wait. I waded through the snow drifts to a book store and bought it on the spot.

>In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We've elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel ready" jobs for a society that doesn't encourage people to pick up a shovel.

The reason for that is because the huge manufacturing automation and outsourcing wave that swept the nation in the 70s, 80s and 90s destroyed the association between skilled labor and a "good job". Its hard to make a living building things when a robot or a Chinese peasant can build the same thing for a tenth of the cost. Its hard to make a living fixing things when its cheaper to order a replacement.

What you are referring to is mostly unskilled labor. Mr. Rowe was specifically talking about work that cannot be outsourced - welders, plumbers, electricians, carpenters.

We're not short of electricians, we're short of people who can repair televisions.

We're not short of carpenters, we're short of people who repair furniture.

We're not short of plumbers, we're short of people who repair washing machines.

Once specificity is injected into the conversation, the issues surrounding these shortages become more clear. Are you going to pay to repair a computer if the newest wiz-bang HP is only $400 at Best Buy or WalMart. Some might. After all, they may only have $200. Majority will probably just buy a new one. But there is currently a lack of labor to address the market of people who wish they could have the computer their aunt gave them 4 years ago refurbished.

It's also more clear why the shortage exists. People with the proclivity will gravitate towards the 'safer' route, being an electrician. We only notice a lot of laid off electricians because construction is in a downturn. But, and here I'm only speculating, I think most electricians or utility company linemen for instance, would not count refurbishing old pc equipment for minorities in ghettos as a viable replacement for the work they currently do. At least not financially.

Similarly for carpentry. There is a market outside construction for woodworking. Does it pay as well? Is it large enough to absorb all of the carpenters idled due to the construction downturn? Judging by the unemployment numbers for construction workers, I would bet the answer to at least one of those questions is 'no'.

The reasons for our imbalances are more fundamental. In the US, things are less expensive to buy than they are to build for instance. Presently, encouraging people to go to Vocational Schools sets the conditions for the same sort of disappointment as encouraging them to go to College does. Until the more fundamental equilibrium are established, we will always be short of people willing to do low paid work. And there will be an over supply of people to do the high paid work. Even on the vocational level.

FAR more vocational people in car repair for instance, than computer repair or woodworking. Consequently, it is tough to land a job in car repair and easy to be fired. Lots of people out there learning to do it. Meanwhile, no one wants to repair furniture or PCs because there is no money in it.

I searched this entire thread for the words "illegal immigration" and didn't find 'em, but surely it's gotta be an important factor here? A helluva lot of the carpenters I see around here are Mexican, and I'd be surprised if they were all in the US legally. If US-born carpenters are being forced to compete with under-the-table seriously-low-wages carpenters in the construction industry is there any wonder that it's an unattractive career path?

In Australia right now, skilled tradesmen are making money hand over fist, and the skilled trades are rapidly becoming more prestigious than the lower end of white-collar work (see the Sydney Morning Herald's "Australia's Hottest Tradie" competition for more details...)

But this will never happen in the US because there's an effectively infinite supply of semi-skilled workers being allowed in by an immigration policy which is highly restrictive for high-skilled workers (who leave a paper trail when they get hired) and practically unrestricted for low-skilled workers (who don't).

> If US-born carpenters are being forced to compete with under-the-table seriously-low-wages carpenters in the construction industry is there any wonder that it's an unattractive career path?

If immigrant (legal and illegal) are undercutting the industry by charging pennies for jobs that regularly cost a hundred per hour, then that is a problem with the industry, not with the unskilled immigrants.

I went to a vocational school to learn to be a wrist-watch repairman. I'm certified by both Swiss and American organizations. So why am I looking to change career paths after 8 years in the business? There's not enough people that have higher end watches that need repairing to justify doing this full time for the rest of my life. There's an Asian made movement out in the wild that I can buy 200 of at $1.50 each, which also powers 50% of all simple non-swiss watches in the world. This thing is plastic, heat pressed together, uses plastic form-injected gears, and does not have a single replaceable part on it. Got a little dirt in the gears? Replace it. Stem is broken? Replace it. In regards to high end companies, it took me 6 years to convince a Swiss company that I would be a good asset to help with their after-sales-service and obtain a spare parts account with them.

If the government is worried about Skilled Labor disappearing, then someone needs to provide incentive to companies to develop standards that allow laborers to get parts accounts with them, as well as have manufacturers of product create products that are repairable. This is obviously a multi-faceted problem.

Another factor in this is quality of work vs. how cheap it can be done. If the people they are doing the work for can't tell the difference between a well built house and a cheap one or between a well cooked meal and one thrown together, those who are skilled will be pushed out or forced to work at low quality and low pay.

This happens all the time in the technology industry... It's a constant struggle and for the most part the only way to deal with it is through marketing. See luxury brands as examples.

So we need premium carpenters/coders/electricians.

You would be surprised by both how many are legal and how many are illegal.

You don't need to be an electrician to repair computers. I would also think the guy who can wire your house to the code is not necessarily able to replace a burnt motherboard and clean out hordes of viruses (because that's what "repairing computers" often means), or to assemble a working machine out of bunch of components and install OS and a basic set of programs. This kind of computer work is mostly software, with elementary hardware troubleshooting skills, so you'll need more an admin than an electrician.

Cannot be outsourced... yet. Do you really think it will be very long before small welding robots scale and weld steel on new high-rise construction? A robot that can scale an I-beam doesn't seem too farfetched... and no worker's comp, no danger of people falling off the building, no overtime wages...

Same with plumbing and wiring. I would bet that within a few decades we will see massive use of robots in construction.

Now, for ad-hoc repairs you may still need a skilled human being, but for new assemblies I think the robots are going to take over there sooner or later as well.

I was talking to a boiler-maker friend the other day when he described an automated device that he places at the joint of two pipes to be joined, gets it aligned, and (it sounded like) presses a "Start" button and the unit moves around the diameter of the pipes, welding them together. No "by hand" required. It's not surprising, in a way, but when I stop to think about it, it's another case where people are being replaced by robots. I'm concerned for the future of human work.

I'm concerned for the future of human work.

I'm not. Afterall, somebody has to build the robots. It just means those welders will need to move on to more gainful employment.

It will be painful in the short-term perhaps, but I liken it to the situation with farming. A couple hundred years ago people spent most of their time just trying to feed themselves, but then we slowly automated a lot of that and people moved on to more productive means of employment. The current situation will only be tough for the people not willing to embrace change.

> It just means those welders will need to move on to more gainful employment.

Easier said than done. Not everyone can be a programmer, and robots can easily build other robots. There will be some room left for human work, but there won't be enough to cover 300 million people. The social danger I see is an incredibly high portion of the work force out of work and out of money (with no government support structure), if people become desperate for their basic survival needs that they're used to now things can get very ugly.

And if we expand the term 'robot' to include simulated human minds, we get into a worse position with "normal human" jobs.


"Would robots be slaves? Laws could conceivably ban robots or only allow robots “born” with enough wealth to afford a life of leisure. But without global and draconian enforcement of such laws, the vast wealth that cheap robots offer would quickly induce a sprawling, unruly black market. Realistically, since modest enforcement could maintain only modest restrictions, huge numbers of cheap (and thus poor) robots would probably exist; only their legal status would be in question. Depending on local politics, cheap robots could be “undocumented” illegals, legal slaves of their creators or owners, “free” minds renting their bodies and services and subject to “eviction” for nonpayment, or free minds saddled with debts and subject to “repossession” for nonpayment. The following conclusions do not much depend on which of these cases is more common."

And of course, those robots will need to be repaired which means jobs for welders,electricians and machinists

I'm curious how much longer it takes to attach this device to the pipe instead of simply welding it by hand.

Also, what will happen when the automated welder starts having issues because some slag got into the gas head (where the inert argon is released) and the welding quality tanks? There needs to be a skilled laborer that knows how to fix it, and it will massively suck if your entire business which revolves around metal being welded together has to stop for 2 days until some specialized worker has to fly in to repair your device, all because no one you employ knows how to weld by hand.

Or it uses replaceable nozzles which also solves that problem. Anyway, welding robots have been in use for a long time so I expect the basic mechanics to have already been worked out.

PS: how much longer it takes might be less important than how much cheaper it is per weld. If I can pay someone 12$ an hour for 8 hours to do the same work that someone making 50$ an hour does in 4 it's normally a huge net win. On to of that, it will probably become faster fairly soon.

But there will be a human somwhere in the chain. Just as IT made business more efficient AND more expensive at the same time. There will be someone that has to maintain the robots, someone who can program the robot to do what it needs to do, etc.

Unless of course you think these robots will have AI. In that case, why would they build buildings for us, vs ruling over us?

I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

Am I on slashdot?

I really don't think machine intelligence is quite there yet (or will be for multiple decades). There is a lot of decision making and experience in those jobs. Robots are fine for the factory, but in the field they lack the flexibility of a human.

"work that cannot be outsourced welders, plumbers, electricians, carpenters."

The company I work in in Spain, big European hi tech multinational is planning to replace 92% of all welders with laser automatic machines.

Laser machines work 24/7, no unions, much less safety cost, better precisions, faster, and way cheaper.

Laser or plasma has been there for a long time, the cost is the thing that goes down and down.

Plumbers-> Now pipes are pre fabricated. Electrician-> Very easy to do it yourself. Carpenters->IKEA

No, people do not need people to fix the TV. They could go to the shop and buy a new one by 600$(in the near future is going to be 300$), people could buy a 30$ pendrive to see it on their computer.

You hit on part the problem. People see "vocational" and think "factory". Factory jobs can be outsourced, but you cannot outsource construction work. We need more skilled labor not factory workers.

While many of those jobs cannot be outsourced in the sense that you cannot send them overseas, they can be outsourced in the sense that you can ship in cheap labour from abroad, have them do a job for a fraction of what you'd have to pay a local, and then ship them back.

If that's true, then why is there a shortage? Labor can be replaced easily, skilled labor can't. Try waiting to ship over a cheap plumber next time your toilet won't flush.

If there is a shortage it's because the government has made it artificially hard to ship in cheap plumbers.

Here (Sweden) the last two times I called a local plumber what happened was that the plumber showed up looked at what needed to be done for 10 minutes, leaves and call in a couple of Eastern Europeans he had in 'inventory' to actually do the work. Once they where done he came back to check over their work and hand me the bill. Shipping in and out cheap labour to keep waiting times to a minimum essentially then becomes and inventory and logistics problem, just like any other, for the company acting as a middleman.

That's true, but he's also talking about the kind of skilled labor that robots don't, and probably won't, do for a very long time: handy man, around-the-house kind of work.

I just had a guy come over today and fix my sink. I was sitting down editing in another room the whole time. It brought home that difference between "higher education" and "vocation" pretty strongly.

I always try to ask what to do so he doesn't have to come over in the future, but this one was particularly gross. But, really, I should have learned how to deal with gross clogged sinks in high school, so I wouldn't be squeamish about it now. It's our responsibility to learn this stuff, because this stuff, and the people who work on it, is really makes society tick. (Google a great Long Now talk, "World Without Us," to see how the only people keeping nature from retaking everything are maintenance guys.)

You don't know how to unclog a sink?


Where have all the hackers gone?

I code during the day, fix my jeep when it breaks, fix my lawnmower, remodeled my basement, take apart kids toys, etc, etc.

You should give it a try. Don't be afraid to make mistakes (you will) and you can always call in a guy to fix it if your really break something. Trying is learning. And, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing how things work in your home.

Since I've been an adult, I've never lived anywhere I'm really allowed to do anything home-repair-ish, because the apartment complexes I've lived in prefer to pay a professional to do maintenance, rather than take the chance that one of their tenants will break things. So my rental agreements have all had clauses explicitly banning me from even taking apart the sink. I suppose I could learn if I bought a house, but that takes a lot of money!

Yes, I've been in that situation and it really sucks.

You can't modify your living environment. You can't just string cat6 and wire up your place.

I think this speaks somewhat to the principles of Christopher Alexander http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Alexander

Paraphrase: Humans should be able to modify their living/working space.

There is nothing quite like building something real. Programming is cool and I love it, but building something real (and that other people can use), modifying your environment and customizing your space is just so damn satisfying.

If you can afford to rent a decent place you can afford a small house. Just need to get the down payment, which is a matter of discipline to save it up.

That's not really the case in the Bay Area... I was renting a decent apt for $1k/mo, but a small fixer-upper house was $500k, which was way out of the range of what I could get a mortgage for.

I live in Seattle. In the area where I live it would take over 30 years of rent to pay for the cost of a condo, and that condo would be bigger and newer (and therefore more costly) than the tiny studio I live in.

Everyone has options, I just happen to like living close to where I work (and therfore not need a car). If that means that I can't paint the walls without asking my landlord I'm ok with that.

My lease agreements say that, too... but I'm too impatient to wait for the landlord. Things need fixin'!

All I want to do is live in a future where robots do all the work, and I get to build and program the robots... But with that said, it's going to be a long time before robots can do all the things Mike's grandfather could do. (Installing electrical lines, replacing sewer lines, replacing roofs, etc.) Sure, manufacturing automation killed a lot of jobs, but there plenty of skilled labor jobs that robots can't do today.

Making a pencil by yourself is hard. Expecting everyone to make their own pencils is silly.

You don't get more and better food by becoming a better farmer, you get some other guy to be better at farming, and some other guy to be better at making farming equipment, and some other to be better at making software that runs the equipment, and some other guy to be better at making the satellite that gives weather data to the software, and so on and so forth.

Yes, we need people in skilled trades. It might even be a good idea to start retraining idle workers in skilled trades. But specialization isn't just for ants. There is no need to feel bad about the fact that you don't know how to fix your toilet, or computer, or car if you're an otherwise productive adult that happen to know some specialized set of remunerative skills that the plumber/technician/mechanic does not.

I thought Mike was just some "TV guy" they hired to do that show. This puts a whole new perspective on things. Good for Mike, hopefully someone will listen and act.

Then you need to see his ted talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_rowe_celebrates_dirty_jobs.htm...

Mike has some really deep insights into American culture and work, every time he's interviewed or speaks it's a treat.

Wow. Thanks for the link.

Mike Rowe has consistently shown that he's more than just a cable TV show's talking head. In almost every single speech I hear him give, he's eloquently stated our need for more skilled labor or given credit to the people who do these dirty jobs all day.

He made an extremely interesting video for Reddit's AMA. Sat down and spoke for, I believe, ~20 minutes, answering every question in great detail.

the first of those videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxudGb4VYL0

Believe it or not, in addition to the other tidbits people have posted here, Mike was also a professional opera singer in a former life! He's one of the most interesting and real guys on TV, IMO.

Mike Rowe is also an Eagle Scout if that matters anymore to you.

One of Mike Rowe's first TV gigs was a host on the QVC network. Here are some videos:


I think he's in it for the joy of it, just like how Alton Brown made "Good Eats." He's also the narrator for Ford truck commercials.

> He's also the narrator for Ford truck commercials.

Deadliest Catch as well.

Fun fact: Mike Rowe wasn't rich growing up, but because of the way the freeway next to his house cut off access to a large area of land, he had free roam.

His family kept a horse, which he used to ride to school on.

My brother-in-law met him and said he was one of the coolest, most down-to-earth people he's ever had the privilege of speaking to.

Mike Rowe did a really interesting podcast interview with Adam Carolla late last year: http://www.adamcarolla.com/ACPBlog/2010/10/19/mike-rowe/

Worth checking out.

I loved that podcast... also, you can find his QVC work on youtube. Gold.

I agree that there is a perception problem in this country involving skilled non-degree jobs. On one hand we're complaining that immigrants are taking all of our "jerbs", but on the other hand, we say we're too good for a job that doesn't require a bachelors degree.

We have to break this perception. I don't know what the solution is, but I do know in Germany students can decide whether to take a university route (high school) or take a skilled trade route (vocational high school).

Of course, that system has its own problems, because students are separated by social class by the end of 4th grade, which is incredibly early to tell a young person that they can or can't get a university education.

One of my most striking memories is groups of men sitting on kerbs in Cairo with a couple of battered stone chisels and a hammer. They just sat there every day with their tools, waiting for someone to give them work chipping concrete BY HAND for a day.

They were skilled guys (at bashing concrete and holding a hammer all day), and willing to work hard. But in a fucked economy they couldn't contribute anything except cheap labour. Non-manufacturing trades don't support an economy. It's nice to think about an army of new handimen rebuilding America, but the reality is that an army of Amazon drones is what will be coming.

Canada has had a "Trades" ad campaign going for some years now, and as a result, a lot of trades jobs can be hard to find. I have a friend who recently decided to get in to trades as a welder, after a string of poor life decisions left him without a serious education or career.

The sad part is that he's having a bitch of a time finding a job up here... which I assume is due to revitalization of trades from the government ad campaign.

Definitely something to support. And hey, maybe my friend can go work in the US.

Try North Dakota (close to Canada) and desperately in need of skilled labor b/c of the oil boom.

To add to pragmatic's point, they are hiring huge numbers of people to the point the oil companies are buying out hotels.

Growing up in a small oil town, it's a scary business to be in. Things are boom and bust, and unless you are essential you can get dropped right off. Everything in the town was so dependent on oil, and it was booming in the late 80s and started going bust when the price of oil dropped in the early 90s, then back up and back down again around 97, then back up.

On indeed.com job search for Seattle most welders seem to earn around $30k per year. Denver seems to be closer to $20K/anum. Not exactly indicative of a shortage driving the price up.


Plumbers are around the same:


It's a cool story and ole Mike sure has a purty smile. But this strikes me as a bit of PR for Dirty Jobs.

It's still possible that though there are many plumbers, they're getting older and we're going to see a lot of them retire in the next 10-20 years.

A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber - if you can find one - is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we'll all be in need of both.

Mr Rowe: this fact, if you really believe it, will ensure the problem is fixed. No need to testify to congress about it.

I don't buy that Dirty Jobs and their like help to reform the image of skilled labor. For everyone I know that watches those shows its more like Intervention where the show just makes you feel better about your life.

The welding program has all but completely shut down at my local community college. They auctioned off all of their machining equipment for fractions of pennies on the dollar about two years ago. If I want to complete any AWS certifications, I will have to drive a ~40mi round trip to Moraine Valley to complete the necessary training. There is literally no place closer, and I live a big city.

So, for my own selfish reasons, I would also like to see a push to increase the numbers of skilled laborers. :-)

You'll make more money if you tough it out and your skills are rarefied.

This is something I've thought about in the last year or two as well. We have a culture of "buy", not "fix". In part, this is because we've had a very rich 60 years. In part, this is because things are cheap. In part, because factories design things that are not designed for repair by customers.

The reality is, we can't fix a busted capacitor, a scratched CD, or a damaged microchip. Nor do we have the equipment and spare materials ready to hand to weld cracked plastic. Super Glue is it, and not a very good it.

Whereas, we can fix wood, and with some work, manage metal. Earth can be munged around.

Cars are designed to be maintained, unlike computer hardware (especially our Macs :-( ).

So in a culture where by the nature of the things we use, we can not trivially repair them - we leave off the ideas of repair, and prefer the idea of replace.

This is a problem, because we are more than consumers, more than robots being pipe-fed from the wells of other people's industry.

H.G. Wells' conception of the time traveller always hangs around in my head when this sort of discussion arises.


Thank you Mike Rowe for putting this on the record!

The trend away from skill-based learning to the ivory tower is contributing to a deterioration in both. University education is moving towards the average at an alarming rate. The value of an undergraduate degree is diminishing by the day, which is further exacerbated by the skyrocketing cost of education. It seems to me that high schools should promote vocational education just as much as they promote four year universities. The current system of trying to get every high schooler into college is asinine, not everyone is cut out for it. It seems to me that students, parents, teachers, and guidance counselors should work better together to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a given individual to determine what that student finds most interesting, and foster that feeling. Instead, schools receive more prestige for graduating more students into university and universities receive more funding for accepting more students. Ridiculous.

It occurred to me that I had become disconnected from a lot of things that used to fascinate me. I no longer thought about where my food came from, or how my electricity worked, or who fixed my pipes, or who made my clothes. There was no reason to. I had become less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought.

Can a modern civilization really be considered "civilized" when things like these salt-of-the-Earth basics are so far removed from the general population?

In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They're retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.

Indeed, this is another thing. My dad was a construction worker -- he hung drywall for a subcontractor, so you can imagine what his benefits were: zilch. And he worked until about 3 months before he passed away at age 53. These jobs aren't the kinds of jobs people can do until they hit what the rest of society considers a respectable retirement age.

While I appreciate Mike Rowe's sentiments and general argument, this speech reminds of politicians who lament the loss of manufacturing jobs as America's backbone. Economists have regularly pointed out that as a country becomes wealthier and more educated, the share of the economy devoted to manufacturing falls. This isn't really a good or a bad thing, its just a reflection of how that country's resources fit into the global economy. This loss of manufacturing is only a problem when people are losing these jobs in a "race to the bottom" situation, much like Mexico and Asian countries during the 1990's.

However, I do acknowledge that the current education system frowns upon pursuing vocation degrees, when many of my friends would have excelled in these programs during high school if given the opportunity. The important distinction here is that we want jobs that are "skilled," not jobs that are manufacturing per se.

This isn't really a good or a bad thing, its just a reflection of how that country's resources fit into the global economy.

Yes and no. The fact is that some people are dumb. Half the population has a two-digit IQ. As we transition from an economy full of easy jobs (guy who puts things together on a construction line) to hard jobs (guy in charge of a hundred robots which put things together on a construction line) we run out of things which these sorts of people can actually do.

This article really hit home, it describes the situation today quite accurately. I live in a large town in which 90% of the kids at my high school go on to college after graduation, anything besides college is looked down upon.

Our county also runs a smaller technical high school specifically for this stuff, but unfortunately it isn't a very nice school, as there is a lot of violence.

I, personally, would not take an occupation involving this kind of work, being as I have a future somewhere in Computer Science, but I definitely value these skills, and hope to learn a lot of them in the future. Maybe one summer I'll work odd jobs, or fix up my house.

Here's a thought: let's subsidize trade schools by not subsidizing colleges!

I believe that the main problem is we have spent the last 20 years "training our replacements" (i.e. selling off semiconductor tech, outsourcing) and not enough time training our children. Maybe if we spent a bit more time teaching our children instead of depending on the schools to do it for us things might be better.

Make time to make things with your children. Life is about more than money, your grandfather knew that.

He should've pulled out the "sheep's balls on my chin" story from his TED talk. That would've been way more convincing. ;-)

I'm not gay but I have a serious crush on Mike. I've always respected people who could fix things regardless of what it is. Mike Rowe's show is pretty much my dream job. "Go do" a bunch of stuff others think is gross, and get dirty. Work with my hands.

Too bad i'm in IT with mouths to feed. Hey, at least it's hardware support

"I believe we need a national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor."

We had this in Canada a few years back. Or it might have been Ontario only, but in any case, there were lots of TV ads and financial incentives for getting the appropriate education in skilled labour.

Around here they're trying to increase the college graduation rate at all costs, education and merit be damned. It's a symptom of the same "everyone must be degreed" mentality.

well spoken. I'm glad he provided a balanced approach to the trades. he hit the nail on the head... and to think.. I used to kinda think we was a douche.

I think he could run for president!

He's far too reasonable to make a presidential candidate. You have to be somewhat extreme to attract dollars because too few middle-ground people give too few dollars (and there is no media drama involved).

Why do you need a lot of money? To get your message out there, right? Well, this guy has been getting his message out for a while and has good name recognition, so he doesn't need as much money as someone on the fringe.

I'd give him money over your typical "say anything to get elected" (d-bag) candidate.

Perhaps he couldn't.. but he should. Of course, I can think of a good deal of people like that.

frickin lov this guy. My own father is a craftsmen and soon to retire. Dirt is cool

I was really annoyed in high school that there was no way to fit in wood & metal shop and programming classes. I even took 'early bird' classes and took PE at the local community college, but still couldn't fit in metal working. It was disappointing to be restricted to a particular skill path at such a young age.

If most of the readers here are like myself then we can't really do anything about that issue, I can't fix or do anything very well with my hands, takes me forever and ends up doing like a 5 year old did it. I'm great with logic abstractions but I suck in the physical world.

I find it funny this post is #1 on hacker news today.

Good tradesmen are hackers. They hack on 50-200 year-old technology, but it's hacking none the less.

Put farmers in the same category.

Not sure what, but I sniff an opportunity for tech to get involved here.

Farming is high tech. Tractors drive themselves (what google is only now doing with cars).

The tractor, the planter, everything is gps and sensor based. You can tell how much seed is coming out at each planter point (can't remember the term for this). Each one needs to be calibrated. Also they shut off if you cross over a planted area so you don't waste seed, fertilizer, etc.

Farmers aren't waiting for you to come along and "get tech involved". They've (the smart succesful ones) always have the latest tech. From satelite internet (way back when) to spreadsheets to highly sophisticated computerized machines.

Inputs (fuel, seed, fertilizer) are ridiculously expensive (b/c our dollar is worth less and less and the fed prints money like toilet paper) and at least fuel and fertilizer have many foreign components. So automation and gps, etc can be really cost savers (also better for the environment, incidentally)

Yup, a friend of mine works for a company that develops software used by farmers (among other things). He says that all the farmers he meets are surprisingly tech savvy and always on top of the latest computer and tech trends.

In Western Australia the "Shear Magic" sheep shearing robot was developed during the early eighties - a working robot that dealt in real time with shearing a live sheep. Elsewhere, the state of the art was spray painting a regular shaped car on an assembly line.

Various other bits of "cool tech" range from stump jumpers to laser optic wool classing.

I worked at a startup creating a device that would be useful for a lot of industries, but before the high-tech companies in silicon valley bought in, before the consulting companies in NYC were convinced, farmers tried it out and used it.

It surprised me that you could convince farmers to try absolute bleeding edge technology, but they would. And they would at a faster rate than cell phone companies, consulting companies, manufacturing firms, etc.

Any links to farm tech/forums where you can find out about this stuff? I have zero interest in webapps/dotcoms, but an incredible interest in robotics/physical things.

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