14 May 2010

Book report. Shop Class as Soulcraft.

Okay, first things first: Why in the heck did I choose to buy this particular book? Because I'm adrift on the sea of careers- wandering aimlessly with the currents hoping to run aground on a job that I don't hate. I can't decide WHAT I want to do, I am should-ing all over myself, and am totally and completely hung up on notions of what a "good" job is. What's worse? I feel utterly beholden to my 4 year degree- like the world will swallow me whole as punishment for taking a job that doesn't make use of my degree. I'm frustrated and confused with an extra helping of baggage. So I thought this book might help me change my view, get me thinking outside the box and maybe, just maybe, give me some direction.

And you know what? It is pretty awesome. And eye opening. Also? A little bit disturbing. But I'll get there... I'm not going to write some dissertation on this book, nor am I going to get all up in your grill about buying it or reading it or whatever... but I guess I just wanted to do a little sharing. Because sharing is caring. Or at least that is what I say when Swiss has ice cream and what he says when I have a tasty beverage. Though, to be fair, I reserve the right for this post to get completely out of hand and turn into a dissertation/book report. Sometimes I get carried away... can't be helped I'm afraid!

Anywhoodles. So, there's this idea out there that manual labor is somehow "less" (in most every way) than the more traditional 'knowledge' labor. Parents don't want their kids to be plumbers, they want them to go to college and become an architect who designs the plans for the plumber. Though, in today's economy, that architect's job can be outsourced, sent overseas, or even delegated to a computer program. What about the plumber? His work can't be outsourced, it can't be done by a computer, and no one wants an inexperienced amateur doing their plumbing work. Plus, he gets to charge you about $80/hour for your troubles because he is an expert. Hmmm. I never made $80 an hour with my college degree (plus an extra degree!)... I made less than half of that. Less. Than. Half. With 5 years of college. Working at a world-famous medical center. As an "expert". Less than half. Think about that for a minute...

Furthermore, Crawford talks about the idea that working with your hands, gaining experience and expertise in a specific trade is generally more gratifying and soul-quenching than talking about theoretical things and doing paperwork and getting lost in the management miasma that is the modern workplace. And I can't disagree with that at all. Not one bit. Not even if I tried. Think about the satisfaction you get from making a spectacular meal, or harvesting the vegetables from the garden you planted, or the admiration and pride you get from seeing the quilt you imagined, completed and on the bed. Think about how gratifying it is to do something well and have concrete proof of your skills. Doing a photo shoot and getting so many wonderful shots you have to work hard to pare them down? That is a wonderful feeling. Knitting a sweater you can actually wear. Building a play set for your kids. Changing your own oil. Fixing the loose tile in the bathroom. YOU did it, YOU succeeded. Satisfaction. Pride. Concrete proof of your mad skillz. I can honestly say that at my previous job afforded me little of that... and what was there? Fleeting at best.

And what of that satisfaction you get at these 'modern' jobs? Pride that you counted inventory correctly? Satisfaction that you didn't fall outside the ridiculous constructs that have been put upon you by the higher-ups? What kind of 'credit' do you get? Most of us never get anything more than a pat on the back or a flimsy e-mail. And where is the tangible evidence of how amazing you are (or, to be fair, your failures)?  I never got to meet the person who was successfully treated for their cancer after I made a challenging but accurate diagnosis. I can only point to a theoretical group of people who may or may not have actually been helped by the work I did. We are so far removed, usually, from the outcomes of the work we do that it is hard to reap any real satisfaction from our efforts.

Whats worse is that we are leading generations upon generations of future workers down the "College is the Only Way" path. Worse yet, the academic culture (not always) generally is more about generating graduates rather than thinkers or folks particularly well suited to specific jobs. I've seen students pushed through, I've seen college coursework that wasn't much more challenging than high school curriculums, and I can see how any degree only prepares you for the broad scope of a general topic, it does nothing to actually create someone who will be successful. This culture of Everyone Gets a College Degree! is de-valuing the degrees themselves. Furthermore, as a result we have created a workplace that requires documentation in order to get jobs. You have to have a Bachelors, or a Masters or a PhD to even qualify for SO many jobs... but really, what does that degree say about you? It says you went to school and finished your requirements... it (honestly) says precisely nothing about your ability to do any given job, nor does it predict how successful you will be in any given position.

And honestly, how much sense does that make? For example, Swiss just found a job on USAJobs for a dog handler with the TSA. The requirements? Experience working with dogs or a Masters degree. Whaaaa? Can anyone please tell me how having a Masters will make anyone more likely to be successful in this position? Wouldn't one think, rather, that someone with experience with security or tactical planning or identifying terrorist threats would be more in line with the particulars that would make one successful at this job? I fail to see how an extra 2 years of schooling makes ANYONE better suited to handle a dog in a security based position. School is theory. Experience is practical.

Now, before anyone goes thinking I'm here to bash the higher education system... that is far from the truth. I have a Bachelors and I learned a TON. It was beyond useful in shaping me, my outlook, my approach to problems and my intellectual understanding. It also served to broaden my view on things, experience new disciplines, opinions, cultures, etc. College is WONDERFUL for many people. And for some, the desired careers (understandably and appropriately) require these advanced degrees... professors, research scientists, doctors, policy analysts, lawyers, etc. The common thread to all of these (and simmilar) types of jobs is that the knowledge necessary to do to job well goes beyond what can be gained in 4 years as an undergraduate. This makes sense and I wouldn't dream of changing it. In these positions, having those advanced degrees actually does say something about you and your ability to do these jobs.

But getting back on point... the book does a pretty amazing job illustrating the struggles I've had with working in big-business corporate America. And yes, a large hospital totally qualifies. Though I loved working there, it was more of a result of the amazing people I worked with and less about the job and its structure. I found my frustrations arose with the variable and inarticulate nature of the generally accepted management approach (through little fault of the actual managers), the lack of direct exposure to the results of my work, and the touchy-feely-make-everyone-happy-even-if-they-aren't-hacking-it vibe of the modern workplace. Standards were not uniform and ideas of 'team' and 'teamwork' were rampant... all of which only served to minimize personal accountability, give the under performers crutches and punish the workhorses. Furthermore, it created a homogenized environment where certain personalities were oddities that needed more structure and other, more difficult types, were politely ignored for fear of conflict. All of these things are, generally, par for the course because of how the powers that be choose to maximize output and minimize cost. We all suffer because of the almighty dollar... and because we work in terms of theories and concepts, our successes and failures are measured in shades of grey and we all know that we can be replaced with relative ease. Not concrete work with black and white terms for success and failure.

So, now that this has turned into a dissertation, I HIGHLY recommend this book for anyone who is looking critically about their jobs or thinking about what new road they want to take in terms of work and careers. I'm not saying we should all throw in our respective hats and become electricians or motorcycle mechanics... but I do think reading this will give you a better understanding of what inherent issues in the workplace bother you the most, and help you weigh the pros and cons to working in corporate America. I, for one, realized that I thrive in environments where I can SEE the fruits of my labor and gain actual pride in the quality of my work, I do better where relationships are formed based on mutual respect rather than under the guise of being a 'team', and work best under concrete structure rather than the pervasive 'this is the rule until it isn't convenient anymore' culture. This has already been invaluable in my personal job hunt... the red flags are easier to see and I am more able to articulate my wants and goals for my next career.

I'm totally interested in hearing your take on these issues and/or your thoughts on the book if you've read it. For those of you currently job hunting... are these things you take into consideration or do you consider them a given and just deal with it? How valuable have you found your degrees to be and what is it, exactly, that prevents you from taking real pride and joy in your work? Do you really get more satisfaction working with your hands (in any way- from cooking to crafting to yardwork) than you do with your actual work? Can't wait to hear what you all think!

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