The other morning, I went to breakfast with my 17-year-old nephew, Michael (Mikey). It was a good conversation. As usual, I asked him his plans for the future. His response greatly impressed me.
He did not want to go to college. I could not have been prouder. Let me explain why.
Currently, Mikey works basic carpentry and building labor on the weekends. Between school years he will shift to full time over the summer. He likes to work with his hands and he wants to save for a car. (In my family, you earn the money to pay for the things you want.)
So, he thought about it and he wants to go to tech school and learn a trade. He listed off a number of trades – plumbing, electrical work, HVAC systems, etc. He was not too sure which skill he wanted to learn just yet, but he knew it would be a trade.
I am proud!
I have long felt the problem with the United States has been our increasingly elitist attitude. The US did not start as a country of elitists. We began as a country that was purposely NOT elitist.
We, Americans, shunned an established aristocracy. There was a time that we judged a man not by that which he made on a paycheck, but that which he made with his life. A good family and a stable home were the admirable goals of the generations of immigrants that came to the US to leave the elitism of Europe. We looked down on those who looked down on the working man.
Those days seem to be gone.
We have traded our lunchboxes for briefcases. But what have we gotten for it? Stagnant wages for the past forty years, jobs outsourced to low wage countries like China, and an overall National malaise. Why? We do not BUILD anything anymore. We buy things that others have built.
Ask any woodworker the definition of joy and he will tell you the following: standing in front of the cabinet you just built, with your own two hands, and marveling at the fact that you built that cabinet yourself.
We need to get back to becoming a nation of builders.
Today, we have an education system that teaches kids they MUST go to college. This is considered the mark of an achiever. But I disagree. Here is the problem with that mentality: much of that which is taught in college are skills that can be outsourced.
You cannot outsource a broken toilet, but you can get paid very well for learning how to fix one.
The problem with the United States is that we turned our backs on the trade schools that once made this country great. We assumed that teaching kids calculus was more important than teaching kids how to fix an exhaust manifold leak. There is no doubt that calculus is important for some, but for others it simply isn’t.
We should reopen tech schools around the country and get back to the basics of teaching some of our kids that good old fashioned Labor is just as admirable as a sheepskin.
Let’s face it, some kids like my nephew are just not built to sit in a classroom. Rather than deny them the privilege of a skill set that can serve them for years to come, we should encourage more of them to seek alternative forms of education – trade schools. The United States would be in much better shape if we had more skilled laborers.
The economic realities of the world are pretty easy to figure out: the world is becoming more automated. That which used to take two-hundred workers now takes twenty… someday it may take two. Those twenty, or two, will not need to know the intricacies of tribalism in an obscure African location; they will need to know how to keep the electrical grid humming.
Yet, we continue to close trade schools. Technical high schools and colleges have been replaced by Community Colleges that teach Modern Art as a major. Whereas I have nothing against art, let’s get real – if you are getting your Modern Art degree in a Community College you are bound for a life in retail.
We should be reopening schools that teach young men and women how to swing a hammer, not a paintbrush.
Again, if someone wants to be an artist, that is fine. But becoming an artist is a luxury few will ever enjoy. Becoming a carpenter is a skill that can feed a family for a lifetime.
Getting back to a competitive global economy requires a skilled workforce that knows the difference between a towel and a trowel, a calculator from a closet auger, and a plasma cutter from a plasma television.
Technical schools would be a great step forward. But that requires a recalibration of our societal mindset. We need to begin valuing the electrician the same as we value lawyers… in fact, we should value them more. I can live without a lawsuit, but I definitely need the lights on.
As a country, we need National Leadership, beginning with our next President, who does not look at the working classes as a potential voting bloc that can be exploited. The next President needs to look at the working classes as the core of American values. He, or God forbid she, must have the courage to tell the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, “NO MORE!”
The next President should then unleash the powerful potential of the American people by training them to work, build, and fix tangible things rather than dwell on hypothetical intangibles. Unfortunately, the American worker has been forced to endure conversations on who should pee in which bathrooms. We should be talking to each other about how to get kids like my nephew Mikey reworking air conditioning units and electrical panels.
Of course, that also means we need political leadership that looks at the American people and sees all of them as fundamentally good. We have not had such a President in a very, very long time. I hope that will change soon – for everyone’s sake.
Then, instead of leaders telling us that we “did not build that,” we might get a President who shakes the calloused hands of the American working man and woman and says, “Thank you for building a Great Nation.”