Learning A Trade?


Being able to do things and make things and create things is a sure way of fighting depression. It's also a great way to save money and it can be a career.  Yesterday, I made this home office desk in a closet for our printers.  It felt good to make something.

We have finished the first of three bedrooms in our house makeover.   The old beige carpeting is gone, and the new flooring is installed in what was my office, and is now a guest room.   One room down, two to go.  It is funny, but a lot of people are not even capable of doing these simple tasks.  Many folks we know - friends of ours - are helpless as kittens when it comes to making and doing things.

And it need not be home repairs, or car repairs.   The human brain is programmed to do things and depression sets in when you stop.   That's why it sounds like a good idea to just sit around and do nothing - laze around until 10 AM in bed, and then lounge around all day long.   But in reality, it is frightfully boring and what's more, depressing, as when you don't do anything, you tend to feel worthless and useless.  The human brain wants to be used for something.  We exist for a reason - and existence without reason isn't existence.  This is why warehousing people in "Council Flats" or "Public Housing" isn't an answer to anything.   You give a person a house, they are not happy.  You make them scrounge for it, they get a sense of satisfaction.

I talked about this before - learned helplessness.   If a person (or animal - and we are animals) feels that nothing they do alters their environment, they become depressed and just cower in the corner.  When you can pull a lever in the Skinner box and get a reward pellet (or avoid a penalty shock), you feel you have a modicum of control over your life - and are happy as a result.

But again, the need to do things doesn't necessarily have to mean building a house or putting a motor in your car (two things I have done in my life) but could be a hobby of one sort or another.   In response to my knitting experiment, we've been bombarded with ads, for well over a year now, for various forms of fiber arts.    In a chilling example of how Internet advertising works, Mark decided to try out needlepoint and is well on his way to making a pillow.   This is addition to his pottery production (he is making more ceramic birdhouses for the Christmas sale) and our home improvement projects, gardening, and whatnot.   He is always creating, always making things or planning on how to make things - or planning a trip.   This is what fights off depression, and I am glad he is around.  Without these ideas, I would probably just sit around watching television and getting depressed.

Needlepoint frame.   The background is a stained glass piece my sister-in-law made.  I've tried my hand at that, it isn't as easy as it looks!

Many people on our island have such hobbies.  Home improvement, is, of course, a big one.  My neighbor is painting and fixing up his house, including installing a new split-system air conditioner in his sun room.  I installed one in our garage last year - and three in our house in New York.  It wasn't too hard to do - but does require some skills, tools, and an understanding of how air conditioning works.  Sadly, most people have none of these three things.   Many folks think an air conditioner turns electricity into "cold" the latter of which doesn't exist, but is really just an absence of heat.   I know this as I get hits all the time on my posting about portable air conditioners - people wonder why they don't work if you don't vent the waste heat outdoors.   Shouldn't I be able to just plug this in and make the entire house instantly cold?

My neighbor managed a company that made and sold things, so he has a background in Engineering.  So he knows how to make things and fix things and use basic tools.    And that is a good thing to know in life, particularly in our technological society.   It is sad, but as I noted before, we are sort of a cargo cult, in that many people have all this amazing technology and yet have no idea whatsoever how any of it works.   It might as well be magic.   And that right there explains why conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxerism are so popular these days.  Not only are people ignorant, but they want to feel smart by having "inside information" even if it is entirely wrong.  And it is a lot easier to follow some YouTube video or a conspiracy website than to, you know, actually learn something.

And it isn't hard to actually learn something and useful to learn skills in addition to an "education".  So many young people today graduate from college with degrees in advance naval gazing.  They know how to write a research paper and get an "A" on an essay on a test, but they can't really do much with their hands, or know how things work in our world.   And many lament being unemployed with so many student loans to pay back.   Shouldn't a bachelor's degree in Sociology guarantee them a six-figure job right out of school as a "Sociologist"?

Having skills is a good fall-back position to have, and not only that, helps you in your personal life as well.  I was fortunate in that during my 14 years of college, I managed to acquire some skills.   Now, granted, I did learn how to use basic tools and machine tools while in high school.  I suppose they probably have cut back on "shop class" since I was a kid (but not the almighty football!) arguing that knowing how to use a lathe isn't a necessary skill for kids today.  But often a whole education is in knowing things you don't need to know, but might later help you in life in understanding how things work.

At GMI, I worked in a ball bearing factory, and learned how to use a number of machine tools - and how bearings (and other things) are made - as well as a host of thing they probably I didn't learn, for example, why GM was going to go bankrupt.   When I went to work in the labs at Carrier, I learned to solder, weld, wire, plumb, as well as knocking sheet metal and so on and so forth.  We had to fabricate machines and test equipment and then program computers to log data.   It was fun, too - and they paid my tuition for night school.

A lot of the people I went to school with - even in the Engineering program - didn't have this sort of background.  To them, Engineering was something you learned out of a book - a theory - and they had no "hands on" experience to back it up.   In my last semester at Syracuse, I was working in the EE department at Carrier, actually designing a circuit board to go into a heat pump.  For all I know, they are still using it today - probably not likely.   But it was more than book learning.

Unfortunately, there is this attitude in America that actually getting your hands dirty is somehow beneath most people.  I mentioned before that some folks think their technical ignorance is a source of pride, as if actually knowing something made you a mere trades-person and utterly beneath them.  They are better than that and can afford (so they think) to hire someone to do all their dirty work for them.   Of course, with this sort of attitude, you end up getting ripped-off an awful lot by people in the trades.  Which is why people like that are a pain-in-the-ass to work for, as they lash out at random things, convinced they are being "astute" consumers by complaining a lot about everything.

As a result, there is a shortage of skilled people to install, maintain, and repair all of this technology that we own.   No one wants to take these jobs and get their hands dirty.   They all believe this mythology that they can get a degree in liberal arts and get a "clean" white-collar jobs that pays more - and pays back those student loans.

Maybe back in 1930.  Not today.   When I was going to school, my own Mother ran down my career as being "a mere tradesman" and told me that anyone who was anyone got a liberal arts degree, which could "lead to something" later on in life.   And when she was in college, maybe that was true.   People who went to college had money and made connections with other people who had money.  It was all about joining the right clubs and fraternities and learning the secret handshakes and whatnot, back then.  Back then, you could get a liberal arts degree and get a job at a company and "work your way up from the mail room" to the Executive Suite.    But a lot has changed since her day - and since mine.

By the way, my Mother believed a lot of crazy shit - because she was crazy.   She thought, for example, that killing yourself was somehow a grand gesture and noble, and not the stupid waste of a life that it is.   She would say things like "all the great authors killed themselves!" and she spent a lot of time trying to, herself.  But she never became a great author, although over 72 years, she did manage to kill herself, mostly by drowning herself in a sea of cheap white wine and vanilla ice cream.   You know what?   She was wrong.

As I noted in another posting, never take career advice from anyone over 30.   What my Mother thought was good advice was outdated by the time I was in college.  And even the advice I got (go into hardware, not software!) was obsolete by the time I graduated.   Today?  I have no freaking clue.  My electrician told me his grandson made tens of thousands of dollars at a gaming tournament in Las Vegas.   I have no clue how that even works - making money from video games.   But people do that, I guess - not everyone, of course.   What jobs will exist in the future is beyond me.  Even the job postings of today make no sense to me - they might as well be written in Sanskrit.

A reader writes asking for job advice.   I don't give advice.  See the last paragraph.  Even if I did give advice, it would be laughably outdated and wrong.   Career advice?   Probably the worst thing I could give.   But he wants to know if learning a trade is a good idea.  With the high cost of college these days, learning a trade could be a good deal - and could lead to you owning your own company, down the road.  One of the wealthiest couples living on our island, own their own HVAC company, which they built from the bottom up.  Today, they are retired - and their son runs the business.   Learning a trade could be worthwhile - but it depends on a number of factors.  

First of all, how do you learn it?  Going to a "for-profit" trade school and borrowing tens of thousands of dollars is probably a bad idea.    Most of such schools are bogus - they provide little training - and you don't need to spend all that money to learn a trade.

I would suggest instead to contact someone in the trade and ask them how to get started.  Chances are, they will give you an honest assessment of what the business is like, how people get started in the career and advance in it, and what steps to take - and whether it has as future.  Before I became a Patent Attorney, I talked with an old family friend who had his own Patent firm.   Not only did he give me the lay of the land, he offered me a job as well (sadly, before I could take his job offer, his firm dissolved after he lost a major client - which itself was a learning experience for me).

Second of all, is there a future in that field?  The local "for-profit" school advertises that, for only $30,000 or so, you can learn how to be a bank teller!  Get a good paying job in this expanding field!  The reality is - and you'd learn this by taking the time to talk to a bank manager - that the job doesn't pay all that well, and it is rapidly disappearing in this era of virtual online banks, online banking, and cellphone banking apps.   Branches are closing and tellers are being laid-off.  Hardly a career with an assured future - and certainly not one worth spending money to learn.

It pays to do the research first.   And while it may seem a bit intimidating to approach a bank manager or the owner of a local HVAC, Plumbing or electrical company to ask for advice, you would be surprised at how many would gladly give you at least a few minutes of their time - maybe even an hour, maybe even a job offer - if you genuinely show interest in their field.   People want to see you succeed.   Yea, I know, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there, but human beings aren't all rottenness and selfishness.   Besides, in fields where they are hiring, it benefits that manager to encourage someone to enter the business.

But if you decide to learn a trade - particularly if you forego college - expect a lot of pushback from friends and family, particularly your parents.   The older generation has been sold on this college fantasy that just any old degree paid for at any price is a worthwhile proposition.   In some instances, college is viewed as a way to get rid of a troublesome hormonal teen - at least for four years.  It also is a matter of status to your parents - they want to brag at the cocktail party on the cul-de-sac at foreclosure mews estates about how their son/daughter was accepted as Prestigious U.

I've seen this a lot in my life.  A friend goes to college getting a degree in useless studies.  He bums around at McJobs for a few years, smoking dope and being aimless.  He finally moves away and finds a part-time job with a stonemason, carving gravestones.   He finds his calling in life, and a decade later, has his own business.  Was college a waste of time?  Perhaps.   What is clear is that you can find yourself and your vocation, one way or another.  And just because you got a degree in X doesn't mean you'll find a job in X - or there is anything wrong with working in Y.

Many young people, at age 18, find it hard to go against the advice of their parents, particularly when what they are offering is four years of independence at Party U. with the prospect of beer, drugs, and possibly sex - a potent cocktail for a teenager, for sure.   Just sign here, the Devil Dean says - sign your life away, and you'll have fun for four years.   It is the traditional deal with the devil, too - selling your eternal soul (or at least a good portion of your life) for four-years of fun.

But as we are now learning, the human brain really isn't fully formed until about age 25 - when reason kicks in.  And it is about that age that people start to figure out their lives and most come out from under the protection of the parental umbrella.   Others, well, they never do, and that is sad.  I see people here on our island, in their 70's, still terrorized by parents in their 90's.   And that is just pathetic.

You have to figure out what it is you want to do with your life - which is a heady proposition and a liberating one.   I cannot understand why some folks, offered up the smorgasbord of life with all its offerings and options, shy away, or think of the prospect of living their life they way they want to as "depressing".   Worse yet, people who claim to be "trapped" while living in the wealthiest country in the United States.

There are so many fun things to do.  Do them.