Rebranding the Trades

There was a time hard physical work was respected. When laboring with your hands meant something of pride, self-reliance, and ingenuity. Hands to work provided the means to make for yourself, your family, your community, and your country. Getting dirty brought satisfaction to a job well done.

Despite some progress in recent years, it is not so today.  What happened? Perceptions of the trades have changed over the last 50 years. As a complex question, some compelling ideas surface.

Here is one:

After WWII, corporations expanded rapidly and became greedy. To cut costs, they shipped manufacturing overseas and closed down factories. Family farms were bought up by big agribusiness and universities set out on marketing campaigns to entice youth into the corporate world with slogans like “Work Smart, Not Hard.”

Universities’ marketing the need for bachelor degrees was so successful that millions of people paid to go through their programs; the universities made millions. Trades educators were replaced by university educators and as a consequence, the 90s saw the systematic removal of shop classes in high schools across North America many years later.

The push for more bachelor degrees by universities should have been based on industry demand. However, today’s generation of undergraduates have hit a wall of unemployment. We have a surplus of university educated hopefuls who are working at McDonalds and Walmart making minimum wage.  We are now reaping the consequences of erroneous marketing ploys put forth by universities that disregarded the needs of industry. Today’s economy reflects the rising demand for more skilled tradespeople more than ever. However, the damage has been done. The movement towards university education has come at the expense of a trade education.

As university education became the societal convention, vocational and technical schools became the dumping ground for those not ‘intellectually cut’ for university. This created a division and image problem for blue collared work. Working hard, getting dirty, and providing service lost its respect. Negative stereotypes and associations developed for those in the trades and it turned into the ‘last resort’ career choice. Welcome to class separation, or rather, the illusion of class separation.

Despite this, tradespeople recognize the intrinsic value of their work. It requires innovative, critical thinking, the ability to adapt and change and pays well too. Tradespeople provide essential services that connect people to their community and country. As the need to maintain and build new infrastructure continues to grow locally and worldwide, how will we meet the demand? What needs to be done to repair 40 years of negative stereotyping?  I say it’s time to rebrand and re-market the trades on a mass scale.

Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs and Mike Holmes from Holmes on Homes represent some of the first attempts at rebranding the trades by shedding light on the work we do. However, these programs also expose the negative side of the industry. Focusing on shoddy craftsmanship on a TV show can help fuel misconceptions of trades while, on the other hand, showing the skills involved in building things right. The latter can help restore some of the allure of becoming a craftsman.

At the very least it provides a starting point.  Where to next?

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