Plumbers have the job prospects in a recession-hit world
Philip Delves Broughton
13.07.09 Helpless is a word you hear a lot these days, especially from the white-collar unemployed. Their skills are not valued any more.
The job cuts in financial services and beyond are looking increasingly permanent rather than part of the natural cycle of economic contraction and expansion.
Services which once required educated people sitting in offices in central London, from accounting to architecture to legal contracts, can now be done at one-tenth the cost on the other side of the world.
Recent university graduates, who were told at every step of their life that success required a bachelor's degree, are finding they have nothing but a certificate and debt to show for it.
Technology, cheap foreign labour and the economic collapse are rendering a highly educated class of professional worker helpless.
It is the same in the United States, where millions of white-collar jobs have been slashed recently which may never come back.
And as the months roll by, more and people are asking themselves the question: what is it I actually do?
It is not something a plumber or carpenter or car mechanic ever has to ask. These are jobs with a clearly defined purpose which cannot be shipped overseas, whose practitioners control the entire process from start to finish.
And they are being eyed with increasing interest by a group of people who for the past 30 years at least have regarded such trades as beneath them.
A new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matt Crawford, a philosopher turned motorcycle repairman, has become the focus of this debate.
Crawford completed a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Chicago, then went to work for a think tank in Washington DC.
The cubicle life killed him. "I was always tired and honestly could not see the rationale for my being paid at all," he writes. So he moved down to Virginia and began repairing motorcycles, a skill he had learned as a teenager in California.
His book is a paean to his kind of work and an assault on the dispiriting professional work that people with his kind of education are expected to do.
He argues that the professional classes have undergone the same transformation the manufacturing classes underwent in the early 20th century.
Instead of controlling an entire process, they are trained to do ever tinier slivers of work, which then become part of a much larger process. They are required by employers to become members of teams.
The problem, of course, is if you lose your place in the process or the team. You're then nothing more than the stray piece of Lego on the bedroom floor, meaningless unless part of the whole.
You are an investment banker without an investment bank. A corporate lawyer with no practice. An independent consultant scratching at the door of the industry you once worked in.
The plumber, by contrast, can always hang out his shingle and fix leaks with no one else to help. And even better for the plumber, it seems that nowadays there are more people offering to build a financial model or provide strategic brand advice than mend a burst pipe.
Manpower, the global staffing firm, recently conducted a survey among employers around the world and found that the toughest jobs to fill these days, for want of qualified employees, were skilled manual trades such as electricians, bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers and masons.
The United States Department of Labor estimates that jobs in skilled manual trades will grow at twice the rate of white-collar jobs over the next five years.
As governments around the world invest in green technology, people with established blue-collar skills and mechanical and electrical aptitude will benefit more from this new industry than those with white-collar skills.
A popular new website, bluecollarandproudofit.com, with the slogan "Success Outside the Cubicle", draws visitors with stories of personal fulfilment and financial success from mechanics, gardeners and welders - people who never bothered with the time and expense of a university education but started work young, became good at something which cannot be outsourced, have control over their time and do not depend on a single employer for their salary.
Their choice has even been validated by some of America's best-known economists.
One of them, Alan Blinder of Princeton University, wrote the bumper sticker for this white-collar to blue-collar revolution: "You can't hammer a nail over the internet."
In an analysis of the drift of jobs to low-wage markets, he wrote: "One clear implication of the upward march of technology is that a widening array of services will become deliverable electronically from afar.
And it's not just low-skill services such as key punching, transcription and telemarketing. It's also high-skill services such as radiology, architecture and engineering - maybe even college teaching."
In this context, all those degrees young people in first world countries are still told to acquire become worthless, as the jobs they qualify you for become economically unsustainable.
If you have the choice, then become a barrister whose presence is required in court, not a solicitor, whose contract work can be done for less overseas and transmitted through the ether.
Don't become an architect, a drafter of plans, become a builder. Be a paediatrician, who must see children, rather than a radiologist, whose x-rays might be interpreted more cheaply overseas.
And for the good of your soul, Crawford suggests, find work with a discernible product or result that you can measure for yourself. Does the car start or the pipe leak?
Avoid anything where your work is diluted into the collective effort of a team or where your self-esteem depends on someone else's opinion. You cease, then, to be a professional and become a clerk, one who is always replaceable.
Skip brand management and run at the first mention of "implementing an initiative". Instead find work which offers practical wisdom which you can use whatever the state of the economy.
But this is not to romanticise blue-collar work. It may be just as hard and will certainly be more dirty than sitting in an office.
As the economy changes, though, it could be the best thing you can do for your wallet.