On Working With Your Hands and our Service Economy

Do check out this New York Times Magazine article The Case for Working With Your Hands, excerpted from the book which is a take on the original magazine article. A PhD drops out of the Washington DC political consulting world to open up his own motorcycle repair shop, which he finds to be a far more rewarding experience, and reflects on the trades in American culture. Sample:

This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially compelling economic rationale…The Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more secure against outsourcing to distant countries…

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions…The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience…

So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete…

There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer….

Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.

He attacks the current educational and cultural apparatus for describing office work as being better for people than trade work as well as moving students from classroom to office cubicle without opportunities for experimenting or experiencing the trades and working with your hands more generally. He goes after the partial schizophrenia of the office worker, as well as the emptiness of a career where you don’t produce goods where can see the tangible results, as it disconnects you from the world itself.

The Service Economy versus the Trade Economy

I’m surprised at how apolitical the essay is. Liberals have fought and are fighting for things like prohibitions on sexual harassment, paid vacation days, work-leave, workplace safety, etc. These things do matter to how the workplace forms us. It is telling that the two issues most relevant for the trades, licensing and unions, aren’t mentioned at all. Occupational licensing is a big deal, more so than the minimum wage, yet he doesn’t touch on it. Why is that?

But time for my beef. Note that for all the talk about “working with your hands” the talk is about the trades, historically a privileged site of labor for white men, very dependent on family and social networks for placement, instead of service industry work, work carried out mostly by women, often of color. He mentions how in the future work that involves providing a direct service will be safe from international competition (Alan Blinders’ point). What he doesn’t mention is that much of the service industry work that takes place in this country isn’t with the set of privileges that the trades have but more in line with something like the toil described in Nickel and Dimed.

In fact, the things Crawford likes about the trades – the sense of autonomy, dignity, security and responsibility – are manifestly not present in service labor. Compare Crawford’s description of the life of a tradesman with this summary of fast food service work from Loic Wacquant’s Scrutinizing The Street (my underline):

Fast-food work is widely reviled not only because it is precarious, dull, soiling, and pays a pittance, but also because those who hold such jobs must display subservience to management and servility toward customers even when the latter are rude, scornful, and aggressive…

[the jobs] are irregular, episodic, and insecure; social relations on the kitchen floor are riven with distrust and brutality; and the pay they provide is so meager as to make it impossible to attain minimal financial stability, garner savings, and project oneself beyond tomorrow…

But therein lies the rub for fast-food employees and the fourth flaw in Newman’s model: by complying with the holy commandment of work in that deregulated service sector, they bind themselves to capricious employers for famine wages and thereby desecrate the value of independence; by submitting to degrading mistreatment at the hands of managers and customers (company policy strictly forbids responding to their insults), they daily violate the ideals of autonomy and dignity that are also core American values. And thus they are disparaged and devalued in the very movement whereby they “seek salvation” through work

Yet studies of the historical development, national deployment and international diffusion of U.S. fast-food franchises have shown that they have coupled new-age computerization with old-style Taylorism not because labor was unqualified and unstable but in order to make it so and to employ disposable workers needing no more than 15 minutes of training to be operational.

Now before you write “But Mike, of course skilled labor is more valuable, and better paid, than unskilled labor” remember that skill here is a term that needs to be contested. Part of the “skilling” of the trades is the fact that they form cartels, can assign their own licenses, and bargain within unions, legal and political options often not available to the service workers, regardless of how much they work with their hands. And regardless of the paychecks, avoiding the Taylorization of this labor enhances the dignity associated with it, the dignity of labor that is thrown out the window in much of the service economy. Perhaps this is expanded in the book, but the fact that the essays don’t tackle this but instead take shots at office cubicle drones will no doubt play well with the New York Times audience, but I think it dodges some of the more important issues.

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11 Responses to On Working With Your Hands and our Service Economy

  1. Adam says:

    *Occupational licensing is a big deal, more so than the minimum wage*

    Can you expand on what you mean by this?

  2. Matt Frost says:

    To say that the essays “dodge” important questions might be a bit unfair, since Matt’s work is specifically about encouraging manual craft as opposed to “knowledge work,” not about renewing the dignity of service work in general. Likewise, if his articles “play well with the New York Times audience,” it’s because he’s addressing the political economy and the intellectual anomie of the educated class.

    Your comments about the service sector are totally valid, and should spur the imagination of anyone trying to figure out just what dignified low-wage work should look like. That question might be more important to the larger American political economy — in fact, I think it is — but it’s not what Matt is writing about.

    Fair disclosure: Matt is a friend of mine, so while I’m reluctant to speak on his behalf, I’m also inclined to defend his articles and the value of his overall thesis. I’m also really interested in watching antagonists emerge from both neoliberal and social democratic perspectives.

  3. Mike says:

    Adam, check this out for an initial take and set of links.


    For readers: I should make clear for readers that Crawford’s essays is excellent. Go read it, especially the New Atlantis magazine version! And buy the book, which I will.

    However I think the fact that, as upper-middle class parents of potential knowledge workers decide what to emphasize for their children’s future, their interaction with people who ‘work with their hands’ is going to have to include, maybe even focus on, the landscapers and maids who are contracted through third parties to service their homes. That any specific trade may only be a few deregulatory measures or a few technological innovations away from turning into such an arrangement of labor is a really valid concern for parents. And in an age of AutoZones and JiffyLubes, the idea that auto repair couldn’t be taylorized into a McDonald’s like atmosphere (complete with corporate polo) should also be a concern for parents.

    My mind when reading it goes naturally to how to support labor like this as an occupation, where perhaps the book is more on bringing crafts more naturally into a corporate lifestyle as a middle-ground; the marketer who builds his or her own back porch. Practically, I left the essay not sure if supporting licensing or unions was a good way to support the manual crafts. Especially with occupational licensing, the neoliberal half of my brain could be open for grabs.

    The arguments about the corporate schizophrenia of middle-management, that is Richard Sennett influenced, is fantastic, and should get emphasized more to free-thinking college kids as to what to avoid.

  4. Matt Frost says:

    I think the gist of the book is about redirecting human potential into manual craft as an individual professional pursuit, not on craft as lifestyle choice (your deck-building middle manager example) or the restructuring of the legal and regulatory framework (though there may be some of that). I wouldn’t be surprised, though, to see the broader culture chew up Matt’s work and spit it out as a watered-down recipe for puttering in the garage as therapy for white-collar ennui.

    At any rate, the topic is totally addictive to someone like myself who stays awake at night wondering just how to get the neoliberal half of my brain to play nicely with the culturally conservative other half.

  5. Larisa says:

    This is one of my favorite posts yet, even though there are no hip-hop references..

    nothing to say yet but reiterate that, yes, it seems like everything that is valorized as an aspect of working in trades is hugely linked to white and male-dominated trades with institutions (official and social) that have tended to perpetuated that dominance unless there was specific organized resistance against it. And that resistance (within & outside the union movement, for example) is integral to allowing participation of other people in those trades and their ability to have the advantaged described.

    I also really like how you highlight “skill” as a political term – one that has been organized over, fought over and redefined. This is so important!

    Like the old gendered, racialized, class-sensitive distinction between “art” and “craft” – or the definition of “work” that leaves out work within families in the home, or (to stretch a bit) the defintion of “originality” w/r/t copyright, the term is not organic or obvious, but is the result of political battles over definitions that grant privileges to those who fall within the definition..

  6. Barbara says:

    My brother-in-law is a Ph.D. who runs a motorcycle shop (well, sort of — he is so interested in the theoretical aspects of motorcycle performance that he almost never satisfies the customer on a timely basis). Another brother-in-law and my own brother, both college graduates, work in construction.

    I think it’s important to separate out the class/policy aspects from the social/human potential aspects of this issue.

    Of course, in the past, at least, trades = guilds = exclusionary tactics against minorities and women.

    But whatever the shortcomings of the trades, it’s still not the case that every person who is bright and well-educated belongs in an office, or that office work is always satisfying or lucrative. To the extent that we “one-track” people who are perceived as bright, we do them and society a disservice and funnel them into positions that, when you think about, don’t deserve the favor of all of our efforts in their direction (law firms, banks, whatever).

  7. thedukeofurl says:

    Hi Mike,

    I wonder what the author would think of Zen and the Art of Mororcycle Maintainance. It was a seminal work for me.


  8. David says:

    The Slate Culture Gabfest just had a a really good discussion of this book: The Culture Gabfest, the Boo-Effing-Hoo Edition

    There’s more to the prominence of skilled labor than just their social prestige or whatever institutional barriers that they are create to build this exclusivity. There’s been a lot of work, see Goldin and Katz, on skill-augmenting technological change and Daron Acemoglu has shown how this process is self-generating. Basically, the more productive is skilled labor, the more incentive there is for firms to direct their innovation efforts that way, rather than unskilled labor. The result is not only that skilled workers have much higher product, assisted by technology made for them, but also that there’s an infrastructure of research and development that *wants* skilled labor to continue to grow, and has commercial incentive to ignore unskilled labor because that’s less profitable market for their technology. I don’t mean to put value judgments on this, but the idea is that if we think there’s a disparity now, it’ll get bigger in the future.

  9. Mike says:

    David what do we mean by ‘skilled workers’ in something like Acemoglu? Is it consistent across what I’m talking about here and the economics literature? Does Acemoglu really mean first-world third-world when he says skilled/non-skilled?

    I can see what you are talking about perfectly in, say Doctors and engineers. I can also see how 2-3 years ago we thought it was true of finance. (what about economists?!?). Is it true for electricians? Where’s a good cite for the self-generating part?

  10. David says:

    I guess the technical definition of skilled workers is either some education threshold, or a job categorization (ISCED has some standardization of that, that you can make break roughly 50-50). In the world of one of these models though, it’s anything that’s an imperfect substitute for unskilled labor (and then defining that is another issue) but for which technology cannot be transferred between them. Your doctors and engineers is perfect. Biomedical equipment makes doctors more profitable and a bunch of companies want to make that stuff because the health care industry is so big and productive that there’s profit to be made there. But if you took some cable installation guy and told him to use the fanciest doctor gizmo he couldn’t. The more companies are incentivized to increase the productivity of doctors, the more their pay goes up and the more the inequality between doctors and cable guys.

    Electricians are probably considered semi-skilled, so I don’t know about that. You could, of course, extend the model to have N types of imperfectly substitutable labor. But the point is to make some aggregation.
    I’d say that the latest computer advances are a pretty good example of something that increases the productivity of economists and finance guys. Just the scale of computing power is more important than for a secretary who needs to run Word.
    The cite:
    “Directed Technical Change”

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