Thursday, August 18, 2011

On "Self-sufficiency" and trade skills

Looking for second jobs today (I want to get my foot in the door with the nonprofit world and entry level's usually part time, so I'm not quitting my day job), I found one that seemed promising. It's a counselor position at a private school for troubled teens. Their website boasts of their success stories, their ability to instill work ethic and self-confidence in their students, and the fact that they treat these "problem kids" as real gentlemen and ladies. It's a tempting environment for kids who otherwise would be left 2-3 grades behind and struggling with the public school system. I thought to myself: Wow, this place looks good! I'd love to be a part of it!

And then I looked a little closer at what they do, which includes boosting confidence and offering job training through the following courses:
  • Carpentry
  • Cosmetology
  • Custodial Maintenance
  • Electrical Wiring
  • Food Service
  • Optical Lab Training
  • Screen-Printing
  • Structural Repair (Painting, Dry-Walling, Flooring, etc.)
  • Woodworking
They say this about the programs:
"This component of our students’ rehabilitation teaches them basic trade skills, instills a solid and positive work ethic, and paves the way to a means of self-sufficiency and independence."

And I realized: something bothers me about the school's emphasis on trade skills. They are not going to provide self-sufficiency and independence. Anyone who had done a trade-skills kind of job will vouch for the utter lack of self-sufficiency one feels when one is living paycheck-to-paycheck because the minimum wage doesn't cover such necessities as real food and gas for the broken-down car that's all you can afford to drive.

We don't have a good place for people with hands-on skills any more. Carpentry is seasonal, not a steady job in most places. Food service is minimum-wage, often part time work. Don't get me started on cosmetology. They are great things to tackle as hobbies or just to be "well-rounded". They are good for teaching self-confidence and a positive attitude and instilling work ethic in kids. They are not good careers. They are useful skills and I would mourn a society without them but they do not pay. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. We all know someone who built up a trade-based business through hard work and is putting his kids through college with said hard work... but those people are fewer and farther between these days, and there's certainly no guarantee of success.

This academy is a feel-good place but do kids really get the tools they need to be successful in the ways that our nation currently defines success? If we want our kids to succeed, shouldn't we be teaching them how to manage on Wall Street or campaign for a political position? Health care would be a more impressive field for student achievement; health care jobs are draining and entry level positions have a high turnover rate, but there's never a shortage of work especially as our baby boomers age. And most nurses can afford to eat even if they don't have the time. Teaching, too, could use some more accolades. Teachers may struggle with loan repayment but they rarely starve, at least not as badly as food service workers!

Our economy is no longer designed to support blue-collar workers. They aren't getting paid what they used to; the job security that our grandfathers had at the mill or the factory isn't there. We are a society of intellectuals now. We produce services rather than goods, and if we want to prepare our young kids for the future we need to train them to take advantage of any opportunity with a general skill set that includes the ability to self-teach and make good decisions rather than weighing them down with under-appreciated trade skills. As much as it pains me to admit that good physical labor isn't appreciated any more... it's true. So why are "troubled" youth still engaged in that kind of training, unless it's designed to keep them in the same socioeconomic slot? They deserve better.

It would be different if they were also learning other self-sufficiency skills: picking up information on gardening and preserving food as well as prepping it in a commercial kitchen, learning to budget and organize, maybe even sewing. Being able to cook for yourself, to grow part of your own meals and fix a fallen hemline in your only pair of work pants and budget your minimum wage income so that you manage to save a little bit toward a better life... that's real self-sufficiency. Knowing how to build a bookcase is not enough on its own.

I guess I'm going to keep looking for jobs... and be thankful I have skills that allow me to seek out a wide variety of career options.

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