Lack of Inducements for Young Men to Learn Trades


I have often heard the fact stated, and I have noticed it myself when looking through some of our workshops, that the mechanics’ places in this country, in nine cases out of ten, are filled by foreigners. The building trade seems to present no exception to this general rule. Very naturally the question arises, Why don’t our American youths learn trades? Some blame it to idleness, but I think that is not a satisfactory explanation. Others say the boys prefer to measure tape, and appear to better advantage than they would as professors of carpentry or knights of the trowel.

There is one thing certain, foreigners do not make any better mechanics than our own countrymen. Our boys are no less ambitious to-day than they were 40 years ago, but still the fact remains that they are turning their backs on trades. I propose to try my hand at a solution of this problem, leaving the readers to judge whether or not I am right. I propose for illustration to take my own trade, one which, had Carpentry and Building been printed 20 years ago, would have had thousands of better posted men in it than it contains to-day.

I do not think I am far astray in making the assertion that to learn the carpenter trade thoroughly, from the geometrical line which form its foundation to the most intricate work which many are called upon to perform, requires fully as much time and practice and study as any mechanical pursuit, and probably as much as many of the professions which pay a great deal better.

Right here I think lies the trouble. Of course we have poor men that are paid all they earn, so has any business, but just so long as the ambitious and worthy men are on a level with the poorer ones financially, and mechanical labor is no better paid than at present, our bench room will not be filled by American youths, for their ambition ranges higher than a hard-earned living and a living only.

Another thing which is overlooked by many is this, that after 25 or 30 years of hard work and exposure, spectacles have to be used in order to see the gauge line that but a short time before could be seen 5 feet away. Carpenters, after passing a certain age, are no more the useful mechanics they once were. As the quantity of work diminishes their wages are reduced—well, I will go no deeper into the subject, the idea alone is sufficiently suggestive.

It is quite probable that American youths do not take all this into consideration themselves. But their fathers help them out, and how often do we hear our bench men remark: “My son shall never learn this trade, if I can help it.” Can we blame the carpenter for such a decision? He is to a certain extent responsible for his boy’s hereafter, and he speaks from a personal experience which only years of hard work can give to any man. It is not hard work to which he objects, but it is the emptiness of pocket against which the hard work provides no remedy, and which renders the prospect of his old age gloomy and altogether uncertain.

He cannot help thinking of that home he left in the country years ago, when he was young and ambitious, to come to the city in order to try his luck. He remembers how he fell into the same groove that ninety-nine out of every hundred mechanics fall into, and how he has led a plodding existence from that day to this. It has always cost him the full amount of his earnings to live, hence it has been impossible to retrace his steps, or to place himself where surrounding circumstances would be more favorable.

Have I drawn the picture correctly? I leave my fellow readers to judge. The question is, Where is the inducement for an ambitious young man to learn a trade? Financially the carpenter’s trade is a failure; mechanically it is second to none. Of course some succeed and accumulate property, but the majority cannot soar and must grovel along.

R. S. T., New York City

Carpentry and Building – July 1880

—Jeff Burks

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10 Responses to Lack of Inducements for Young Men to Learn Trades

  1. Sean Hynes says:

    Nice find Jeff. I have a love/hate relationship with these dug up treasures (the writings of Thoreau always do it for me).

    I love to hear these common sense words and their sentiment from yesteryear, but it also saddens me that we’ve made little progress on so many of these important issues.

  2. Mike Rowe “preaches” this very same thing. perhaps you may want to contact Mr. Mike Dirty Jobs Rowe and collaborate.

  3. Dan Brassaw says:

    Boy, if it weren’t for the language, I would think that was written yesterday. I’ve been a carpenter for 8 years now, ever since I left college (with a degree I put to SO much use!). My father actually TRIED to convince me to pursue an education in woodworking, but I resisted. Little good that did :). I’m slowly finding my niche in finish carpentry, and trying to charge enough that I can make a good living, but it certainly is a tough environment. This piece is really timeless.

  4. I found this interesting and agree that it could have been written in any century but remember my fathers insistence that I not follow his trade, a tallyman in a lumber yard, but learn some trade rather than go to college. This was in the 60s and I went to a vocational high school and became an electrician. Later on I went back to school and eventually got a degree. Jeff please keep posting these gems, i find them very informative and entertaining.


  5. Mark says:

    This post hits close to home. It really seems that the more things change, the more they remain the same. I spent nearly twenty-five years in the trade, mastering it, with little to show for it other than memories and skills acquired. And perhaps better tools than my neighbours. No retirement, no savings. So many years of hard work and barely getting bye. Still, I think I’d do it again. I squarely blame a system that, like so many others, was more interested in excessive profit at the expense of both the people who worked in the trades as well as those who bought into so many of those subdivisions, mortgaging thirty years of their lives. I’ve often thought how few of those buildings will still be sound in another hundred years. I’ve no children of my own but I too tried to steer younger men into more financially rewarding lines of work. It’s funny but now, having moved on to other things myself, I’m struck by how many younger men just starting out in life tell me they want to do something with their hands, and how they find no purpose in attaining that business administration degree. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging the other way and if so, I hope for the sakes of those who want to pursue the trades, that a better way is found so that the rewards, both intangible and monetary, go to those who earn them.

    • tergenev says:

      With a seven year old son and a 2 year old son, I’m starting to ponder these questions. What do I tell them about careers. I’m one of those soulless bstrds that went and got a college degree, and then eventually a dreaded MBA. Yes, I’ve found work, but it hasn’t always been easy. A family that lived across the street from us in Florida had a husband who was a drywall installer . . . a wizard with finish work. Yeah, he had a hard time through the recession, especially with the way the housing market tanked in Florida for a few years, but he did manage to work throughout. I got laid off near the end of it, and had to move my whole family to another state to find work.
      I’m not sure I’ll tell my sons that college is the best way to go. It isn’t always clear these days. If either shows the aptitude, I’ll probably guide them into the structural carpentry of today . . namely network engineer. The guys who know how to install and maintain internet routers are indispensible and there aren’t many people who do it.
      But of course, I’ll also try to teach them my hobbyists skills as a woodworker, so that they might have a fallback career in tough times, and also to keep my father’s ghost quiet that I didn’t teach his grandson and ‘practical’ skills.

      • Sean Hynes says:

        Tell them to pursue something that makes them happy and fits with their values, but make sure they learn the difference between true contented happiness, and temporary pleasures (as for the values, I’m sure you’ve got that covered.

        I pursued a career in IT via a detour in retail management at the beginning. As a kid, managing a shop was great for building confidence and learning responsibility, but it wasn’t something I enjoyed more often than loathed (not so much the hard work, more the working for a large company and being told to sell people stuff they didn’t need).

        In a very roundabout way after dropping out of university for financial reasons, a few years in retail, then support in a call centre, I found myself in a technical business analyst role at a bank, a job I never knew existed when I was younger, but seemed to fit my knowledge and strengths. I loved being the expert of my domain (Internet banking), and I made it my own by being the guy in the room who ignored the the profit motives and focused instead on the customer experience (which in turn would drive down costs by making it easier for people to do things online, which is cheaper for the bank). But after a few years of this I found myself depressed, stressed and miserable, because despite being good at what I did, most of the time I was being directed to produce work that was of little value to anyone, and more often than note I felt I was going against the flow in trying to keep to my values.

        In my last year at the bank I discovered woodworking, in particular traditional woodworking (thank you Mr Schwarz!) and then left the bank to move to the country and pursue a carpentry apprenticeship. While still pursuing an apprenticeship, I have been working with builders, and despite the fact I’ve gone from being the ‘expert’ to the ‘clueless new guy’, I am loving what I do.

        The key is, trades allow you produce real, tangible work, which is of genuine value to others, and is a direct result of your own effort, knowledge and skill. There is very little else in the world that can make you feel so good about yourself.

        BTW, as someone who has seen many network engineers be laid off, and then struggle to find work, I do not recommend it as a safe and stable career. In IT (as with many other industries), if it can be offshored it will be, and if it can’t it will be outsourced to someone who will bring in cheaper people on work visas.

  6. Definitely check out Mike Rowe’s site. Although what you say is probably part of the problem, the enticement/dream of going to university to get a degree in order to get a high paying job and a cushy life can make youth pre-dispositioned against learning a trade where one has to get their hands dirty every day and work hard for their money.

    Sure, that would be anybody’s dream, but only 1% of people make it there.

  7. Rick Roades says:

    I agree with a lot of this, and have begged my children to look beyond the “living paycheck to paycheck” life. However, I learned drywall as young man. Over the years, it has sustained me when other jobs have ended or were in transition.

    It is important to have something to fall back on. Perhaps Jr. High and High School should concentrate on trades/crafts skills instead of aerobics. That way, they could learn something useful while learning calculus or trig, physics or accounting.

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