An education in a bad economy

Through a confluence of circumstances involving fate, shoddy work, our old house and the passage of time, I spent much of December dealing with tradespeople.

It’s a comment on our society that “tradespeople” carries a negative connotation. We’d be screwed without them, but to some, the word implies a lack of education, dirty fingernails, coveralls—"people,” a reader once sneered after I wrote about them, “who work with their hands.”

She meant to denigrate them, but I don’t. We had house problems, a trifecta of plumbing, heating and refrigeration, and I called professionals to fix things I couldn’t or didn’t want to fix myself. I was happy when they showed up.

I was less happy when they left burdened with thousands of dollars that had been mine. If you’re urging your kids to go to college just so they can make a living, you may be doing them a disservice.

No angry emails, please: I know that people who wield tools aren’t all ignorant, uneducated or right wing wackos. Two of the most politically astute men I know are in the building trades, while two of the most unreasonable and unreasoning are “professionals.” I was once a tool-using humanoid myself.

Here’s the deal, though: Three people came to my house. One worked about seven hours, one an hour and a half and one an hour. The long-haul guy did nothing I couldn’t have done, though it took him less time. The other two diagnosed troubles I hadn’t been able to figure out, taking five minutes apiece. I’d happily give them 50 bucks each for that. Beyond that, they just unscrewed old parts and screwed in new ones. In complexity, the actual repairs fell between changing a light bulb and replacing the battery in a car.

The cost? In total, I paid the three what I used to make in nine days of newspapering.

This isn’t a complaint. I called a plumber because I didn’t want to crawl under my house with tools. The refrigerator guy traced a glitch that’s puzzled me for months. (The fridge wavered between thawing the ice cream and freezing the milk.) The heater guy brought warmth to my living room, a pearl beyond price when the outside temperature is racing the fridge to the frostbite zone. ("Pearl beyond price” is just an expression, by the way. He had no trouble setting a price on his services.)

The pay scale triggered an observation, though: Like a lot of people, I don’t mind doing things with my hands. I like working on cars, if I don’t need them to get to work. I enjoy woodworking, though my skills are best suited to areas that don’t get close scrutiny. Think laundry room shelves, not living room bookcases.

If my kids had wanted to do those things for a living, though, I would have discouraged them the same way my parents discouraged me: “Go to college. With an education, you won’t be at the mercy of the economy.”


In fact I did urge that, and the kids listened. One has a college degree in a field he enjoys. The other’s a couple of semesters away, excited about her future. I’m a proud father.

Not an optimistic one, though. The first kid is out of work, victim of a corporate flensing born of mismanagement and desperation. The other soon will launch a career in which, with luck and a master’s degree, she may eventually equal a plumber’s salary but won’t have the prestige.

While we weren’t looking, some bastard changed the rules, and I’m not sure they’re changing back.