What A Good Job Looks Like

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

When Matthew B. Crawford graduated, he found that there was more demand for his services as an unlicensed electrician than as a credentialed physicist. He discusses what a good job looks like:

The work of electricians, plumbers and auto mechanics cannot be outsourced. That is reason enough for a young person to consider going into the trades. But let’s take a broader view of the matter and consider also the possibility for real satisfaction, which may or may not be present in the work we do. Human beings seem to be built in such a way that we want to see a direct effect of our actions in the world and feel that these actions are genuinely our own.

Consider the striking fact that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, most workers simply walked out. His biographer, Keith Sward, wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

Obviously, the men who walked out had other options. Early on, the automotive industry had recruited people from carriage shops and bicycle shops–all-around mechanics who took pride in their skill and knowledge. To merely pull the same lever over and over on an assembly line was stultifying, and insulting too. Eventually Ford raised wages enough to keep the line staffed, and people got used to it.

This story has a parallel in our own time. White-collar work too gets routinized and dumbed-down. This fact often gets obscured by the fact that you may need an academic credential to get the job. I went to graduate school in the early 1990s and loved every minute of it. With my new master’s degree, I landed a job as an “indexer and abstractor.” I was to write brief summaries of articles in scientific and other academic journals.

It sounded really challenging. But my quota, after 11 months on the job, was 28 articles per day. The only way to meet the quota was to stop thinking, and in fact I was given rules for writing these summaries that were based on the supposition that it could be done in a routinized, unthinking way. The job paid $23,000 a year. I never did get used to it.

As far back as 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the expansion of higher education beyond labor-market demand creates for white collar workers “employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers.” What’s more, “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.”

The current glut of college graduates, many of them with heavy debt loads, may need to overcome this problem of being “psychically” (not physically) unemployable in manual occupations, a disability acquired from sitting in classrooms from age 5 to age 22. I am happy to report that it is possible. After getting a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, followed by another prestigious-sounding but soul-killing job at a think tank, I opened a motorcycle repair shop.

Motorcycles are made on assembly lines, but the work of fixing them isn’t too far removed from what those craftsmen in the bicycle and carriage shops were doing. There’s a lot of thinking involved, and it is always my own thinking. In fact, the work of diagnosing mechanical problems is often more intellectually challenging than my think tank job was. “Motorcycle mechanic” is a less prestigious answer to give at a cocktail party when someone asks what I do, but in saying it, I feel more genuine pride.

(He also wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.)

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