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.

Thursday, August 04, 2011


When I got up this morning, I was grumpy. I was itchy (note to self: update blog on the flea wars), I was over-tired (poor sleep patterns lately), and I did NOT want to go to work. I dragged myself out of bed and grumbled my way to the shower, where I stood under the hot water and hoped that it would somehow magically turn me into steam or provide time for someone to accidentally drive a vehicle into the store or set off a plague of locusts, so I could have a viable reason for missing work.

Hot water always makes me feel a little better, so I grouched a little quieter on the way down the stairs to get breakfast... got distracted by the siren-song of my computer and went to turn it on when I realized there was a new book sitting in my chair. A gardening book. Where did it come from? Who cared? Books are a good surprise!

So I read a few pages, reveling in the break from routine, and then went to the kitchen... where a tarnished pair of gold-colored metal goblets was sitting on the counter, with little bits of masking tape stuck to them. '13-' read the tape strips, in blue sharpie, and I thought "AHA! A YARD SALE!". ...when did Rick go to a yard sale?

 And then it hit me. Last night, in conversation before I went to bed, he asked casually if he could put bull horns on the jeep. I thought he'd seen a stupid picture somewhere and gotten the idea, told him 'no' and went to sleep. This morning after finding the goblets I got suspicious. Sure enough, on the writing desk in the entry was a huge mounted set of horns, the kind with the curved tips that you see on Spanish fighting bulls and Texas Longhorns fans. They too had a yard-sale masking tape sticker.

I think I started grinning about the time I saw them on the table. Even in a bad mood a mounted set of bull horns is ridiculous, and it's just like Rick to come home and leave them there for me to find, saying nothing about it. He was already in bed when I got out of the shower, so I hauled them up the stairs (they're surprisingly light) and demanded through giggles to know where he found a yard sale. I didn't get a straight answer, but he giggled too, and then we both kind of fell over laughing when the dog came up wide-eyed, sniffed one of the horns, and licked it veeeery carefully. You could just see her confusion.

The horns are currently residing on the top of my wardrobe, where they look rather out of place among the blankets and stuffed animals. The dog has already forgotten the horns (or is biding her time) and has moved on to the next order of business: sleeping in funny positions. I still don't really want to go to work but at least I feel a lot less grumpy.