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The Skilled Trades

A Viable Career Path

I just read an article by Mike Rowe at his Foundation website, In it, he decries the adage “Work Smart, Not Hard”, calling it an “idiotic cliché that has wormed its way into our collective conscious over the last forty years”. That’s a pretty strong statement, and while I had, of course, heard of this adage, I hadn’t taken the time to parse the message it subconsciously conveys.

Rowe uses that message to help his readers understand how the idea of work ethic has been so eroded over the decades that there is now a huge deficit in the skilled labor workforce. In fact, he states that “evidence suggests we’ve taken some very bad advice and tried to separate hard work from success”. Consequently, he continues, our society no longer values an essential part of our workforce: the skilled part.

Have you thought about that part of the workforce? Those people trained to safely drive the trucks that deliver our goods…the electricians who understand how to keep us wired…the cable gurus who keep us connected…the plumbers we rely on for convenient and safe water…the mechanics who understand the cars we drive and the computer systems that run them. The list goes on. Think of any modern convenience you enjoy; someone skilled at a trade keeps that going for you.

But these jobs have been looked down on by those who eschew skilled labor as beneath them. For years, guidance counselors pointed the “smart” kids toward college, regardless of where their interests lay. Does anyone think you don’t have to be smart to understand the workings of an automobile? Or the wiring in a building? Or the septic system serving a community?

Two decades ago, K-12 public education began the push for increasing rigor in our schools so children would be prepared for “college and career”. That’s how it was presented to our faculty around 2005. Children must possess skills that will be necessary to help them navigate the adult world, whether that involves college or not. No one I know disputes that. However, while guidance counselors may officially point out that any productive avenue taken in life has merit, the money and programs channeled toward the trades has fizzled, in large part. Many high schools no longer offer ‘shop’ class, something that used to be a great way for HS students to test the waters for learning a trade using their hands. Instead, many school districts have, for years, been subtly discriminating against the skilled trades as a viable path to success by excluding classes that feed directly into the programs that prepare young people for work with their hands.

Even on a website that supposedly touts the value of the trades as a profession, there are numerous ads for “discovering your college program”.

Additionally, the curricular path promoted by Common Core does not support the idea that not everyone is college-bound. Expecting third graders to “Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories …” indicates to them that only book-learning at gifted levels is acceptable. Third graders are eight years old. If one is able to compare and contrast anything about literature at that age, he should be placed in a GT class that will foster and encourage his abilities. The vast majority of third graders will not have the abstract reasoning skills necessary to do this on their own. Yet the message we are sending children is that many of them will be labeled failures by the end of third grade.

The sad truth is that we are not preparing children for every avenue their life may hold. While the anchor standards for College and Career Readiness do seem, in a pie-in-the-sky sense, to apply to all walks of life, the reality is that they have been used to convince schoolchildren and even teachers that only a path that leads to college is acceptable.

Tell that to someone unable to find a plumber on a Saturday when his kitchen sink has apparently just exploded.


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Dec 11, 2023

It's not enough to tell children that 'effort' is a good thing. We need to expect it.


Dec 11, 2023

Well-written and relevant to today's youth. We need to reverse the course of education and expectation.

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