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A one-size-fits-all education model leaves many behind who might otherwise find great satisfaction and success in manual trades.

As a new homeowner, I’m getting a crash course in home maintenance. The house—a 1911 craftsman—resembles a vintage Jaguar. Looks great, but terrible wiring. As a result, I’ve gotten to know our electrician, Bill, quite well.

Bill drives a beat-up old blue car, though no doubt he could afford a new one; while painstakingly slow at times, he takes tremendous pride in his craft, devising new ways of stabilizing switchboxes and re-wiring with minimal wall-damage; he volunteers regularly at the local Habitat for Humanity, and serves on various city boards; he is humble and hardworking.  Maybe in his late sixties and tending to portliness, no village blacksmith is he, with “the muscles of his brawny arms…strong as iron bands.” Nevertheless:

His brow is wet with honest sweat,

He earns whate’er he can,

And looks the whole world in the face,

For he owes not any man.

Our electrical work is a family affair. Bill brings his special needs brother, whom he keeps an eye on, to help him out during the day. His son, a high school teacher, pitches in occasionally when another pair of hands is needed. His wife visits every house he works on, just to take a look around (she has not yet been to ours; Bill claims she may kill him for not buying it himself when it was on the market).  He emphasizes that family life isn’t easy, but it’s the most important thing there is, and the only way to secure a hopeful future for our country.

A business major in college, he claims to have a sideline in psychology, which he mostly applies to lighting and heating—what “the wife” wants to make her feel cozy.  He goes out of his way to tell us how vital the sacrifices we make for our own family are, remarking that stable families are a dying breed.  When working in some apartment buildings around town, he is part-counselor, part-referee. In other places, he sees lonely teens whiling away their time mindlessly while waiting for a parent to return from work.

Getting to know Bill has been a privilege and my respect for him grows daily. The world needs more people like him. Bill has many personal virtues that play a key role in making him the man he is, however I wonder if there is also something about the nature of his work—the dedication, the patience, the focus and attention to detail it requires—that reinforces and rewards such attributes. I don’t mean to imply causation here, but there’s something extraordinarily satisfying and perhaps even ennobling about manual labor, and in seeing the manifestation of one’s hard work in so clear a form.

It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of highly skilled craftsmen. Where have all the Al Borlands gone? There are many factors contributing to this gap, including difficulty legally hiring immigrant workers, the time-intensive training process, and a decline in new construction projects as families deal with the lingering effects of recession. What is somewhat remarkable to me, however, is how few young people there are in these professions. Old tradesmen are retiring, yet there is no one to replace them. Why are so many members of my generation unwilling to go into trades such as carpentry, masonry or plumbing? Income from these jobs can be significant, educational prerequisites are few, and demand for skilled workers is high.

Many speculate that the relentless focus among policymakers and parents on college attendance plays some role here. College is not for everyone, and may prove frustrating to those—especially young men—who prefer physical activity and practical application of skill to hitting the library. A one-size-fits-all education model leaves many behind who might otherwise find great satisfaction and success in manual trades, and prejudices students against seriously considering some honorable professions that may not require a college degree.

Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has made headlines for his outspoken insistence that college can kill ambition and entrepreneurship. He has gone so far as to establish a fellowship program for people under 20 years of age who agree to leave or forgo college to pursue innovative business ideas.

Speaking out against the “college for all” model is one way philanthropists can help level the playing field. Going out of your way to show you appreciate the dignity of manual work is another. Other options include addressing the “supply” side by funding trade recruitment programs, trade and vocational schools, paid apprenticeship programs, or start-up costs for small businesses in this line. The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Spring 2011 issue of Philanthropy sheds some valuable light on the subject and highlights some deserving programs.

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