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The Handyman Can

Writing for the New York Times, Louis Uchitelle laments the death of skilled craftsmanship in the United States, drawing a parallel between it and the nation’s long-suffering manufacturing sector. According to the essay, DIY megastores such as the Home Depot simplify, idiot-proof, or just do for you tasks Americans once took pride in completing themselves. It’s true that Americans often turn to the conveniences Uchitelle decries – solutions like pre-cut, peel-and-stick vinyl flooring, cheap multiuse tools in day-glo colors, and in-store contracting services of the ease with which contractors can simply be hired, right in the store, to lay your carpet or seal your deck or redo your kitchen.

The decline of interest in and knowledge of personal craftsmanship is tangentially related to the shortcomings of U.S. manufacturing, just as Uchitelle implies. We know that the loss of technical skills is a serious problem in the United States. We know that it is caused by attrition (as the older skilled workforce retires) and educational shortcomings (as ever successive generation has less and less access to technical training in school). We know that on one hand manufacturing jobs have fallen off a cliff; on the other, about 300,000 jobs for “skilled” manufacturers are going unfilled. And it’s reasonable to assume that a society of people who are willing and able to do craftsman-type work may be more successful in skilled manufacturing.

We also know, though, that pre-glued vinyl floor tiles or the ability to hire a contractor directly from Home Depot to install them doesn’t correspond directly to skilled manufacturing labor. Home Depot type of work is weekend-ish and often DIY. It’s not a direct correlation. Hobbyist craftspeople don’t necessarily work in manufacturing and their skill, or lack thereof, doesn’t necessarily translate to employment in any industrial sector.

The sorts of skills that the Home Depots of the world help simplify or offload may represent some slice of the capabilities that the 300,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs represent… but probably not a large one. Home Depot does not contract out CNC programming, or master welding, or aeronautical repair. It does not offer pre-assembled wind turbines or semiconductors. Uchitelle’s larger point is that loss of weekend DIY skills tends to imply loss of overall technical skills. This may not be directly provable, but the evidence is there.

Politically, reinforcing the manufacturing sector is always an important speech item. Whether or not the politicians who talk about it actually do something constructive is another matter. The only point where I really disagree with Louis Uchitelle’s message is when he implies that a candidate’s skill at craft might influence their efficacy at revitalizing the manufacturing economy.

“…neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney promotes himself as tool-savvy presidential timber, in the mold of a Jimmy Carter, a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker,” he notes.

But Ulysses S. Grant kept his cows on the White House lawn and no President has done that for a while either. The American cowconomy nonetheless remains strong. Jimmy Carter’s cabinetry wasn’t a significant portion of his government, it was a pastime. He made cabinets because he enjoyed it. And anyone who voted for him because he’s a skilled carpenter needs a lesson in civics; an informed public shouldn’t select officials based on what they like to do in their spare time. That neither Romney nor Obama openly wield tools really has nothing to do with their capabilities in economic management.

From that perspective, the rise of solution-oriented products and services is a natural result of social and technological change, not the source of America’s manufacturing woes. Eventually, digital manufacturing capability may lead to a world in which a lot of this stuff is done directly from home, on a computer, and the “skills” required have more to do with using software than laying brick. Skilled craftsmanship, vocational capability, technical labor, whatever you want to call it – these things are declining (and Home Depot’s convenient solutions are growing) not because presidential candidates don’t fit pipes, but because skilled labor has been sidelined in America’s educational system. Nations like Germany, which aggressively pursue career and technical education, maintain stronger manufacturing economies, and those skilled manufacturing jobs are readily filled over there. The United States has all but abandoned that type of training, to the point of stigmatizing it; and there are reasons for that which have nothing to do with the President’s ability to make a cupboard.

But all of it comes down to the same simple truth: skills must be learned. Whether they’re learned on weekends by changing a toilet neck or learned in a robust technical education environment, they must be learned. Personally, I don’t really hold Home Depot’s pre-glued vinyl against it; pre-glued vinyl is a result, not a cause. When skills are absent, solutions that eliminate the need for those skills naturally appear. But skills only become absent when knowledge is spurned; this is a failure of culture, not commerce. Heck, one might argue that the ability to contract out home renovations right in a home renovation superstore (while simultaneously buying a battery-powered drill/saw combo and a Snickers bar) is good for a well-balanced economy. Doing something yourself means not hiring someone else to do it, right? And we all know that not hiring is bad and hiring is good.

The subtlety of Louis Uchitelle’s argument may be lost on those who choose to read his essay as mere “back in my day we could rotate our own tires” grumbling. But what’s being said is actually much more profound – whether we choose to rotate our own tires or have a tire rotation shop do it for us, the strength is in the knowing.


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