Learning a trade has just as much merit as being a start-up entrepreneur

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, December 4, 2017

I play golf on Sundays with some charming Republicans. Last year, we haggled over the Clinton/Trump election with a vengeance, but now peace has returned. It is what it is, and even nicer, my buddies seem to be more willing than usual to concede me the occasional three-footer.

So, as the year ends, we decided to take on a simple problem over 18 holes — income inequality. And to my delight, we found some common ground — education.

But not just schooling, per se. It is obvious that early education really matters, that preschool is critical, that day care is important, that strong mothers are important — we were all in on those. Where we found real resonance, though, was around the idea of trade schools.

And even more to the point — the entrepreneurial misunderstanding about the value of being able to hammer a nail or cut hair or fix a car or drive a truck or weld sheet metal versus “seeing yourself as an entrepreneur,” and by extension holding on to the fantasy that Silicon Valley wealth is just around the corner. In other words, how do we define ourselves? Are we nothing more than a working stiff — albeit a well-paid stiff? (A plumber in the union makes nearly six figures along with health benefits and a pension).

Why don’t we as a society do more to support marketable skills that will never lead to being a unicorn, but will certainly keep you from being gored by one? One thought is that there is such status in “being an entrepreneur” that simply learning a skill can be perceived as a demotion in social standing.

Our four-year colleges are teeming with entrepreneur programs. It is the badge for personal achievement. My mother wanted me to be a doctor (Jewish, what did you expect), but my father, who actually was a doctor, thought my bedside manner would kill most of the patients, so off I went to film school.

Today, if you go to a cocktail party, the “what do you do” question is best-status answered with “I am an entrepreneur.” (Of course, failing to add “unemployed” or “working for a walking-dead company,” or “trying to fund an app that does something with big data but with no obvious revenue model” — I should have gone to business school or been a lawyer.”)

What is so terrible about learning a trade? There are times that I wish I could actually do something — concrete. Speaking of which, I have a friend who pours concrete for fancy homes in Big Sky, Mont., makes 100 grand and fishes four months every year.

I believe deeply in the community college system. Not every person needs a four-year college degree. And as the robotic revolution approaches, the jobs that cannot be automated or outsourced are the jobs of the future.

As many of you know, I am active in supporting jobs for “formerly incarcerated individuals,” and many of those starting jobs occur in construction and in food service. I honor hard work.

A recent Harvard study contends that if you outsourced some of the daily drudgery, i.e. spent money on avoiding household chores, you would be happier. The blow-back was gigantic. The readers screamed that the study reflects privilege, arrogance and wealth. But the ones who get paid to do the work are part of a growing service industry that will continue to grow. It is just fine to cut someone’s lawn or hair. It is a skill.

But here is the kicker: in the study by Harvard professor Ashley Whillans, she found that many people “don’t outsource unpleasant jobs — even those who can afford it.” They want to do the work themselves. Jiffy Lube lives because many of us do not know how to change the oil in our car. (But with electric cars coming — who needs oil?).

I am intrigued. The issue of time and money are inexorable. But the underlying dark sentence is that there needs to be someone who can actually do that job, who has that skill, who can weld or hang sheetrock or fix your heater — because you either can’t or don’t have the time. And remember this — the people doing that work are good at it and enjoy doing it.

Rule No. 540:  Unclog your own sink.

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