We Need the Trades, and the Trades Need Young People

February 21, 2020 Updated: February 21, 2020
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Things were going wrong. And fast.

The basement of my daughter’s house where I now live alone—she, Mike, and the kids moved last August to Pennsylvania—is inhabited by a water heater, a furnace, a compressor, three 4-foot-high tanks for softening the water, and a metal box beside these tanks containing salt whose purpose remains a mystery to me. For about a week, a thing-a-ma-jig at the base of the furnace had run continuously, the water softeners sounded off at irregular hours, and the compressor kept clicking off and on about five times per minute.

When the compressor reached 12 times per minute, I texted my daughter, “We need a plumber pronto,” and called my son-in-law with the same message. Before taking a job in Pennsylvania, Mike was a contractor and builder in our community. He immediately contacted a good friend here, John, the owner of a property maintenance business who that very afternoon sent one of his plumbers to the house.

Rescue

William was 5-feet-10 or so, lanky, mid-50s, with a West Virginia accent and a ready smile. We went downstairs, and like all good craftsmen, he ran his hands over the parts and pieces of the various machinery, as if to take their measure through his fingertips. “The compressor’s shot,” he said, “and we’ll have to replace the condenser, too,” which was what I had earlier considered the thing-a-ma-jig. He looked over the water softeners. “I don’t know much about these things. You’ll need to get an outfit from Winchester to come look at ’em.”

After promising he would return at 9 the next morning with all the necessary parts, William shut down the condenser, the compressor, and the water softeners, and my noisy living quarters became silent as a tomb.

“See you tomorrow morning,” I said when he left, wondering if it would be so. Previous experiences with tradesmen and punctuality left me dubious at best.

Yet, lo and behold, William appeared at 9 a.m., parked his truck in the yard near the basement entrance, and began unloading his equipment, the condenser, and the compressor. He refused help carrying this equipment inside, refused my offer of coffee—“I already had my share”—and set to work. By early afternoon, he had installed all the necessary machinery, added a new shut-off valve for the entire system, and was loading the old compressor and his tools back in the truck.

“Come look at this thing,” William said, twisting the compressor so I could see its bottom and a two-inch hole. “Rusted out. You dodged a bullet. If that bladder inside had burst, your basement would have been full of water.”

Small Talk

After he had loaded up his truck, we talked again for a while. We discovered we had both vacationed at Emerald Isle, North Carolina. We both had grown children who were making their way in the world and doing well. William had worked most of his life as a printer, running a machine, but several years ago he began researching his company online, and realized it and the printing business were about to go belly-up. For years, he’d run a home repair business on the side, teaching himself skills like plumbing. When the opportunity to work came up for John, he said goodbye to his printing press and leaped at a new beginning.

Before he left, I said to him, “Thank heavens we have people like you. Otherwise, the rest of us would be living in caves.”

“Thanks,” he said, and smiled. “I like what I do.”

Two days later, the water softener guy, also named John, showed up, again right on time. He was younger than William, had longer hair, and wore some sort of blanched tattoo on his left arm. Once again, he was competent. He was in the basement less than two hours, explained to me the repairs he had made, and when I thanked him, he echoed William: “I love what I do.” He told me that for nearly 10 years he had worked as a manager of a Home Depot distribution point, but “got tired of the box.”

We Need These People

All of us, at one time or another, need plumbers and electricians, painters and auto mechanics, and when we find one like William or John, conscientious, knowledgeable, punctual, we feel as if we’ve struck gold. Until we need them, we forget how dependent we are on such people. We take the luxuries they provide us as given, as ordinary as grass, until something goes awry. We buy our potatoes without reflecting on the many hands that brought them to the grocery store. We flip a switch, and a room at midnight fills with light. We turn a tap, and potable water flows into our kitchen sink.

For a long time, the trades lacked prestige. Those who worked in construction and allied jobs often felt stigmatized. They sat at the back of the bus while doctors, lawyers, bankers and brokers, even nurses and teachers, rode in the front. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was famous for the line, “I don’t get no respect,” a line that some at the back of the bus must have sometimes thought applicable to them.

Until the pipe bursts, or the furnace breaks down, or the car needs a new carburetor.

Then they get respect.

Changes in Attitude

That attitude may be changing. In his 2020 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump called for providing greater attention and money to the trades. Many of our community colleges feature courses in everything from auto repair to welding, and because of a scarcity of young people entering the trades, opportunities for employment and good wages abound.

In “A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead,” which I highly recommend to young people in their late teens and early 20s, Charles Murray offers some excellent advice on choosing a vocation. Unless they are absolutely certain about their choice of vocation, Murray recommends that young people first think “about the things you enjoy.” He provides a sort list for them to consider, such as: “You enjoy being outdoors”; “You enjoy solving puzzles”; “You enjoy security and predictability”; and “You enjoy risk.” Examine yourself in this way, Murray suggests, and then select a vocation that will match your personality and will bring you joy.

A 2020 “U.S. News & World Report” report on the job market shows that many of those in the building trades earn good salaries and that all of the trades need more skilled workers.

And we need them, too.

We need more Williams and more Johns in the world.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.