Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Opinion: Kids and Trades and the National Economy

In high school my parents steered me away from trades courses and encouraged me to focus on maths and science. Luckily for me, I was involved in Sea Cadets, and there I got exposure to marine engineering (think of a train's engineer, but on a boat), and I worked in a hardware store which meant I got to puzzle my way through tonnes of stuff and learn from tradespeople who came in for supplies. I was inquisitive and curious and took things apart. After high school I found a job in a machine shop and paid the bills by turning big pieces of steel into little pieces of steel. Today I work in engineering. I also have a ticket as a marine Engineer thanks to cadets, and as a CNC machinist.

But its different for kids today. When Chuck entered high school, I actively encouraged her to take a trades course in grade nine. She took an 'intro to the trades' class where they learned CAD, and talked about production, but never actually made anything. She watched a lot of movies in that course. She still doesn't know how things are made, has never run any shop equipment, and can't fix a broken whatzit, but she has all the trades classes she needs to graduate high school. To be fair, I had the same amount of school training in the trades when I graduated high school.

I remember being in the hunt for my first job, and my friend Jim showing me how to spin a wrench so that a bolt would be tightened faster than normal. I remember him proudly telling me the story of competing for a job, and being able to assemble a machine faster than anyone else in the room. I remember how proud he was of what he could do with his hands. For me Jim was a role model. He still is. If its broken, Jim can fix it.

While working in the shops, I watched as buyer after buyer came from India and China and bought up our equipment. We watched presses and shears go out the door, and get replaced by laser and hydraulic driven technology. An engineer would sit in the office and program the new equipment to make parts and then the equipment would spew out hundreds of parts until something went wrong. Then the labourer would call in a trade to reset the machine. We had a handful of tradesmen and dozens of labourers. Eventually, the shop began outsourcing the CNC coding, and we were left with a bunch of workers who didn't understand the voodoo behind the machines they were running. Tradespeople would be on the phone with engineers far away to get help deciphering code when all the notes were in a foreign language. Eventually, tradespeople servicing the equipment were also coming from far away as our skilled people left, and weren't replaced.

Our schools seem to be producing kids who at best, will be labourers - if we even have the equipment for them to run. In Chuck's school there is no talk of shop classes. They still offer auto shop, but I don't think they offer woodshop or machine shop - at least not to the intermediate and advanced level kids. Maybe those classes are reserved for the basic kids so they can be the best at something. Maybe the cost of maintaining the shops is too high. Rumor is the liability is too great to have kids working on machines. I don't know. I do know that the thinkers of tomorrow can't think if they don't know how a big piece of steel becomes a little piece of a machine, and how those little pieces will work together to become the machine itself. You don't learn that by watching movies. You learn that by playing with Legos, then Erector sets, then making things with wood and steel or bricks and mortar. Maybe the techno-equivalent - Minecraft - is teaching the same skills electronically. I don't know, I've never played it.

Since we are shipping so much equipment and so much knowledge away, I fear what jobs will be left for our kids. Manufacturing is a shell of what we could be producing here, and the remaining jobs are not pulling in an income to support a healthy economy. Even our health and lab jobs are moving away. Kids seem to be being trained in human services and soft-skill based careers - which are needed, but again, how much does a personal support worker actually make? How about a daycare teacher? As we erode the skilled labour and income base, we undermine the buying power of individuals, and ultimately shatter the foundation of our own economy.

It would be great to have an entire economy of bankers and lawyers, but who is going to fix their cars and make their office furniture? I guess the free market will take care of that, right?

Recently it was pointed out to me that if China was to shut down trade with the west, we wouldn't have the skills or equipment to make the parts needed to keep our basic lifestyle. Without being able to maintain our roads, communication and commerce we wouldn't last long as a society. No one is left in North America that makes consumer electronics. Computers are obsolete in 2 years. A 2 year trade embargo would give China the technological edge to swamp us. Think about that for a minute.

All of this is fed by our ongoing lust for cheaper, replaceable goods rather than quality items that will outlast ourselves. And retailers like Home Depot, Target, and Walmart thrive on low value, imported goods because they know we live in a minimum wage society where we want more stuff now, and cheaper is always better.

If our schools can't and won't give smart kids a shot at learning skills that will allow them to change a tire or replace a headlight, then we better take those kids out into the garage with us and show them what we know. We may be labelled "irresponsible" when our kid slips with a screwdriver and needs a couple stitches, but to me that's a whole lot better than our kids becoming adults who have no idea how to be productive.

Chuck is working on making her own marshmallow shooter right now. I need to get her involved in more projects. I worry for her. I worry for her generation. She wants a 'cool' job, but not a trade, and I support her. At the same time, I fear that without understanding the mechanics of how things work, one day she'll go to flip a switch at her job, and find that the switch just won't be flipped anymore, both literally and figuratively.

Her generation is in an exciting time, one where things could go in any direction. I hope she is prepared whichever way the opportunities come. How on earth can we get them there?


  1. I agree...big problems! It's such a machine at this point, at least here--Dave teaches high school math and he has tons of kids in his advanced classes who have no natural talent for math, are never going to use the skills again, but take the classes so that it will look good on a transcript for college. And then the schools encourage it because having more kids in the advanced classes affects their school rankings. No one stops to think about whether it makes any sense. He taught a "money management" class for awhile....great idea, right? except it was strictly for non-college track if the kids who are going to college don't need to learn how to manage money, too. And, yeah, there's no time to learn any real skills because you have to stuff in more and more advanced placement classes in subjects you care nothing about.

    1. Yup, Gretchen. We spend so much time worrying for our kids, but never knowing what could be or will be. I hope we are giving them skills and abilities that will get them someplace better than where we are.


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