Friday, September 18, 2009

Collar Color

The most memorable event of my summer was “helping” my father and brother build a shed for me. (By “helping,” I mean I held and carried lumber, drove a few screws, and wrapped plastic around the incomplete frame at night.) I keep thinking of this because of several discussion I’ve been involved in on web sites where blue collar labor is sometimes described as the easy way out, an option for people who lack the discipline to devote themselves to college.

These eloquent and well-educated people are full of shit.

The first argument that offended me was the idea that people in what they would describe as menial jobs are there by choice, due to their own sloth or ignorance. One even went so far as to say coal miners must like it, or there wouldn’t be so many generations of minors. This shows an ignorance that borders on racism in its breadth and depth. No ten-year-old kid dreams of a life in the mines. A well-known writer—it may have been Val McDermid—told of her father’s glee at having only daughters, as it meant none of his children would follow him into the mines.

The second offensive argument spins off from the first, an implication these jobs are somehow less worthy than those held by “educated” folk. I have a Masters Degree, and earn my living at a computer keyboard working on learning management systems. I’m good at what I do, and I make good money at it. I am also aware my expertise isn’t worth a damn if the building isn’t properly wired, or the microchip wasn’t manufactured to a minute tolerance. My building is heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer, and I can go to the toilet by walking around a corner.

Those of us for whom this facility was built couldn’t handle any of these things on our own. We are wholly dependent on a skilled or semi-skilled workforce that largely consists of high school graduates. They do the plumbing and wire the buildings and assemble the machines and build the roads and manufacture the parts and fix things when they go bad. They pick up the trash and treat the sewage that keeps 21st Century Washington from looking—and smelling—like 14th Century London. Our quality of life depends far more on these laborers and craftsmen than on your stockbroker’s alleged ability to make you rich. Your money’s only good to buy things someone else has made; the least we can do is respect the people who make them.

There’s a lot more to doing any task well than meets the eye. My father and brother—high school graduates both—were intimately familiar with construction and engineering principles I’d never heard of. They’re not engineers, but their lay knowledge of stress and load bearing was vital, considering this shed was built to be disassembled, transported to my home, and re-assembled by the likes of me. That took not just skill, but foresight. (“What’s that dumb ass likely to do here?”)

Is a PhD in English a worthy endeavor? Absolutely. It’s just not critical. Is a PhD in English worth a shit if there’s no one to manufacture, run, and maintain the publishing equipment? Should anyone complain because they have a PhD in anything and can’t get a job that pays more than an “unskilled” laborer? The PhD was your choice, pal. Man up.

This isn’t to argue which jobs are “better” or “worthier” than others; it’s to remind us everyone has their role to play, and we’d do well not to underestimate the importance of any link of the chain. White collar jobs are not inherently worth more to society than blue collar jobs. Besides, when’s the last time a garbage collector screwed people out of $50 billion?


Mary said...

I couldn't agree more!! I once had a plumbing issue that cost $70 to be fixed. Truth be told, I would have paid far more as it was clear that it wasn't going to be fixed by me.
I am troubled by the notion that not enough people are completing college. I actually think we are an over-educated country, with kids taking a 4 year break from life to graduate and do something they could have learned at a trade school.
Oh yeah, and let's not forget - those jobs aren't going to India or China.

Dana King said...

Excellent and timely point. I had a plumber come by the house last week to do properly a job I mucked around with for eight hours one weekend. Turned out I'd done it right, but there was a different problem I never would have thought of that caused my work to go for naught. It ended up costing me $265, including parts, but was well worth it to have the job done right.