“The Black and White Beauty of Fixing Things”

The following exchanges with three young Minnesotans who enjoy working with their hands are excerpted from a chapter titled, “The Art of Craft” in Founder Mitch Pearlstein’s newest book, Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees.

Nathaniel Elifson is the welding student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College we met last chapter, and Matthew Nickolay is his friend and a HVAC student at Dunwoody College who we also met.  I had just asked them what they get from working with their hands?

Nathaniel: “I’m just finishing up my first semester of MCTC’s welding program, pursuing my AAS degree there.  I had never done welding before this year and I’m enjoying it very much.”

I asked why.

Nathaniel: “People had been telling me desk jobs can be replaced by robots, but you’ll always need someone to fix your plumbing or electricity as well as weld.  That’s the ‘thinking ahead’ reason for choosing welding.  But I’ve always wanted to learn how to work with my hands better.  It was never really emphasized in my family when I was a child.  But having manual labor skills is a value to me.”

Matthew: “I’m in the two-year HVAC program at Dunwoody, which is heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration.  I’m currently in my second semester there.  I chose it because my friend Richard’s dad had been in the field, though he’s a pipefitter now.  But he always talked to me and Richard about HVAC and it always sparked an interest in me growing up.  My dad was in human resources and my mom was in the restaurant industry.  Doing things with my hands was never something I really learned how to do.  This is a brand-new field for me.  Kind of echoes what Nate said about his own life.”

I prodded the two to go deeper.

Matthew: “It’s something you see other people doing and they can be so talented at it, like welding and knowing how to wire up a house and fix a car.  The trades are a different world than the world of restaurants and offices that I’m used to.  I like pursuing knowledge and learning about the world around me.”

Nathaniel: “I guess I’m studying to become a welder because of the adventurous side of me.  My mom was the one who worked with her hands most in my house.  She was the one who fixed things when they were broken.  My dad was a pastor and didn’t really know how to do those things.  Out of that I developed this sense that being a good homeowner and taking care of a house are what men do. . . .

At one point, Nathaniel effused about the “black and white beauty of fixing things” as opposed to the grays of various other occupations.

Moving to a new theme, I asked what the two young men thought of what author Matthew Crawford, he of heavy-duty biking and heavier-duty philosophizing, says about the comparative intellectual demands of different kinds of work.  [Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.]  Or in my paraphrase of his argument, that it regularly takes more intellectual firepower to figure out what ails an engine and then fix it than it takes to perform many white-collar jobs for which four-year degrees are required.

Matthew: “I definitely agree.  Next semester at Dunwoody we’ll be working more on troubleshooting.  You get a call from someone who says their refrigerator is not working and they need someone to come over.  You get there and it’s your job to diagnose the problem, get a new part, and then install it.  Figuring out how to get the refrigerator running again is a multi-step process.  It takes brain power to piece the puzzle together.  Working on situations like that pushes you to think outside boxes.”

To the extent both Matthew and Nathaniel too readily downplayed the intellectual requirements of many white-collar jobs in our conversation it probably was because I located too many of those jobs in “cubicles.”  It was too much of a leading question.  But a better question likely wouldn’t have changed much as they both seem genuinely pleased with the educational and career choices they have made, not that either chap was created for a cubicle anyway.

We met another student, Lah Htoo, in Chapter One.  Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, when we spoke he was a high school senior in St. Paul planning for a career in the trades.  I asked why he liked working with his hands and when he realized it.

“Since I was little.  I like making stuff.  I like taking things apart and putting them back together.”

I asked what kind of satisfaction he derived from doing things with his hands.

“Seeing the finished product.  So, if I make something and it turns out good, I’ll be happy about it.  If it doesn’t turn out good, I’ll make it again and make sure it goes well.”