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Craftsmanship lost?


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From the NY Times:

The scene inside the Home Depot on Weyman Avenue here would give the old-time American craftsman pause.

In Aisle 34 is precut vinyl flooring, the glue already in place. In Aisle 26 are prefab windows. Stacked near the checkout counters, and as colorful as a Fisher-Price toy, is a not-so-serious-looking power tool: a battery-operated saw-and-drill combo. And if you don’t want to be your own handyman, head to Aisle 23 or Aisle 35, where a help desk will arrange for an installer.

It’s all very handy stuff, I guess, a convenient way to be a do-it-yourselfer without being all that good with tools. But at a time when the American factory seems to be a shrinking presence, and when good manufacturing jobs have vanished, perhaps never to return, there is something deeply troubling about this dilution of American craftsmanship.

 This isn’t a lament — or not merely a lament — for bygone times. It’s a social and cultural issue, as well as an economic one. The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship — simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor — is one signal that mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country.

That should be a matter of concern in a presidential election year. Yet neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney promotes himself as tool-savvy presidential timber, in the mold of a Jimmy Carter, a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker.

The Obama administration does worry publicly about manufacturing, a first cousin of craftsmanship. When the Ford Motor Company, for example, recently announced that it was bringing some production home, the White House cheered. “When you see things like Ford moving new production from Mexico to Detroit, instead of the other way around, you know things are changing,” says Gene B. Sperling, director of the National Economic Council.

Ask the administration or the Republicans or most academics why America needs more manufacturing, and they respond that manufacturing spawns innovation, brings down the trade deficit, strengthens the dollar, generates jobs, arms the military and kindles a recovery from recession. But rarely, if ever, do they publicly take the argument a step further, asserting that a growing manufacturing sector encourages craftsmanship and that craftsmanship is, if not a birthright, then a vital ingredient of the American self-image as a can-do, inventive, we-can-make-anything people.

That self-image is deteriorating. And the symptoms go far beyond Home Depot. They show up in the wistful popularity of books like “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” by Matthew B. Crawford, in TV cooking classes featuring the craftsmanship of celebrity chefs, and in shows like “This Old House.”

Traditional vocational training in public high schools is gradually declining, stranding thousands of young people who seek training for a craft without going to college. Colleges, for their part, have since 1985 graduated fewer chemical, mechanical, industrial and metallurgical engineers, partly in response to the reduced role of manufacturing, a big employer of them.

The decline started in the 1950s, when manufacturing generated a hefty 28 percent of the national income, or gross domestic product, and employed one-third of the work force. Today, factory output generates just 12 percent of G.D.P. and employs barely 9 percent of the nation’s workers.

Mass layoffs and plant closings have drawn plenty of headlines and public debate over the years, and they still occasionally do. But the damage to skill and craftsmanship — what’s needed to build a complex airliner or a tractor, or for a worker to move up from assembler to machinist to supervisor — went largely unnoticed.

“In an earlier generation, we lost our connection to the land, and now we are losing our connection to the machinery we depend on,” says Michael Hout, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “People who work with their hands,” he went on, “are doing things today that we call service jobs, in restaurants and laundries, or in medical technology and the like.”

That’s one explanation for the decline in traditional craftsmanship. Lack of interest is another. The big money is in fields like finance. Starting in the 1980s, skill in finance grew in stature, and, as depicted in the news media and the movies, became a more appealing source of income.

By last year, Wall Street traders, bankers and those who deal in real estate generated 21 percent of the national income, double their share in the 1950s. And Warren E. Buffett, the amiable financier, became a homespun folk hero, without the tools and overalls.

“Young people grow up without developing the skills to fix things around the house,” says Richard T. Curtin, director of the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers. “They know about computers, of course, but they don’t know how to build them.”

Manufacturing’s shrinking presence undoubtedly helps explain the decline in craftsmanship, if only because many of the nation’s assembly line workers were skilled in craft work, if not on the job then in their spare time. In a late 1990s study of blue-collar employees at a General Motors plant (now closed) in Linden, N.J., the sociologist Ruth Milkman of City University of New York found that many line workers, in their off-hours, did home renovation and other skilled work.

“I have often thought,” Ms. Milkman says, “that these extracurricular jobs were an effort on the part of the workers to regain their dignity after suffering the degradation of repetitive assembly line work in the factory.”

Craft work has higher status in nations like Germany, which invests in apprenticeship programs for high school students. “Corporations in Germany realized that there was an interest to be served economically and patriotically in building up a skilled labor force at home; we never had that ethos,” says Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist who has written about the connection of craft and culture.

The damage to American craftsmanship seems to parallel the precipitous slide in manufacturing employment. Though the decline started in the 1970s, it became much steeper beginning in 2000. Since then, some 5.3 million jobs, or one-third of the work force in manufacturing, have been lost. A stated goal of the Obama administration is to restore a big chunk of this employment, along with the multitude of skills that many of the jobs required.

And there is an incipient upturn in the monthly employment data, although the president will almost certainly finish his first term with the manufacturing work force well below the 12.6 million it was when his administration began. (It was nearly 11.9 million last month.)

“We sit in rooms with manufacturers who tell us that location decisions to move overseas that were previously automatic are now a close call, and that the right policies can make a difference,” Mr. Sperling says.

THAT is particularly the case if federal, state and local governments intervene with generous subsidies, like those seen in China, Germany, Japan, France, India and other countries eager to sustain manufacturing.

Government subsidies are helping to make manufacturing in America more attractive, but the turnaround may be hard to sustain. And it may be too late. Big multinationals already operate factory networks in Europe and Asia, as well as in the United States. Stepping up exports to those markets from the United States, rather than producing in them, is becoming less of an option — short of an international agreement like the Plaza Accord of 1985, which realigned currencies and gave American manufacturers a temporary boost.

As for craftsmanship itself, the issue is how to preserve it as a valued skill in the general population. Ms. Milkman, the sociologist, argues that American craftsmanship isn’t disappearing as quickly as some would argue — that it has instead shifted to immigrants. “Pride in craft, it is alive in the immigrant world,” she says.

Sol Axelrod, 37, the manager of the Home Depot here, fittingly learned to fix his own car as a teenager, even changing the brakes. Now he finds immigrant craftsmen gathered in abundance outside his store in the early morning, waiting for it to open so they can buy supplies for the day’s work as contractors. Skilled day laborers, also mostly immigrants, wait quietly in hopes of being hired by the contractors.

Mr. Axelrod also says the recession and persistently high unemployment have forced many people to try to save money by doing more themselves, and Home Depot in response offers classes in fixing faucets and other simple repairs. The teachers are store employees, many of them older and semiretired from a skilled trade, or laid off.

“Our customers may not be building cabinets or outdoor decks; we try to do that for them,” Mr. Axelrod says, “but some are trying to build up skill so they can do more for themselves in these hard times.”

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Speaking from outside the U.S looking in and having no axe to grind political or otherwise.The U.S for me as a normal working bloke has always been the place I looked at as a can do society,where you sat in awe at times watching on t.v some of the things that have been achieved, and very much like Britain used to be, thought there was nothing that could not be done if the collective will of a nation was focused on a goal or task.

Both nations have a proud heritage of innovation and craftsmanship, that has given the world incredible leaps in so many areas.

But we are not alone, and sometimes we are a bit too demanding, because we want our electric drill as an example, but we want it for the kind of money that pays a Chinese workers wages, rather than a worker at home.

We can't have it both ways,if we want home developed and built quality products we need to accept that we will pay more for them.

Germany is an example of how we used to do things, and remember also the German people are just as proud of themselves as we are, but it seems they have not lost the collective focus that the U.K and U.S did over the last twenty years or more.

If you don't mind me saying, we need to be brave and go for it as was the way when both countries led the world, by investing in home grown products, and educating our young folks in the skills that built nations not benefit lines.

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Yes it is a Tool Forum, but this section is for articles,and all discussion and exchange of ideas and opinions. :)

Discussions on politics and religion can get ugly very quickly. Some woodworking and trade forums have become rather unpleasant due to this and have ended up losing members. Here in America we have a lot of animosity between the liberals and conservatives, the Christians and atheists often argue like cats and dogs as well, and with our election season coming up soon....

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This article really isn't political. It's relative in that the tool market (like any market) is driven by demand, so less people using tools means less demand which eventually leads to less money spent on things like research, development, and marketing, which ultimately means less innovation. It's not blaming either political party for anything. It's just highlighting how the combination of the economy, education system, technology, and other factors all share some blame in the loss of skilled trade workers and how consumer acceptance and political inaction have driven much of the manufacturing base away. It doesn't lay any direct blame though. That's how I perceive it anyhow. I can't imagine anyone being offended by this.

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I found the article very interesting and informative and a chance to get an insight into how the approach differs or is the same on either side of the pond.

It is no more political than saying Buy American or buy British.

I just read it as an encouragement to us all to pick up tools and develop skills in ourselves and those around us. :)

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It's just highlighting how the combination of the economy, education system, technology, and other factors all share some blame in the loss of skilled trade workers and how consumer acceptance and political inaction have driven much of the manufacturing base away. .

And who is it that has control of the economy, education system, and who is responsible for this political inaction, and why do consumers accept this?

A definition,


1. The science of government; that part of ethics which has

to do with the regulation and government of a nation or

state, the preservation of its safety, peace, and

prosperity, the defense of its existence and rights

against foreign control or conquest, the augmentation of

its strength and resources, and the protection of its

citizens in their rights, with the preservation and

improvement of their morals.

[1913 Webster]

So I posit this IS a political article. And if you would like to follow it to its logical conclusion a lot more politics will have to be discussed, and from my perspective our educational system, as well.

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Calm down pal, I get your point, but I don't think picking an argument with the other Moderators over this is doing anything to discourage others from reading too much into it, and equally diving in at the deep end bud.

I think Conductor562 was simply pointing out that we could do more to encourage folks to pick up tools and the skills to use them so these skills and crafts do not vanish. :)

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Calm down pal, I get your point, but I don't think picking an argument with the other Moderators over this is doing anything to discourage others from reading too much into it, and equally diving in at the deep end bud.

I think Conductor562 was simply pointing out that we could do more to encourage folks to pick up tools and the skills to use them so these skills and crafts do not vanish. :)

I am ACTIVELY involved with community improvement projects and teach the occasional craft class. I am used to looking at a much larger picture. I believe I have a pretty good concept of why things are the way they are, I'm only trying to share my perspective. People abandoning skilled trades is a symptom of a much larger problem. Treating the symptoms does little if you don't know the underlying cause and are not willing to confront it. It is like treating a case of appendicitis with painkillers, sure it might make the patient feel better for a little while, but they will end up dead in the end.

A lot of people are passionate about topics of this nature which is why I previously stated that it would probably be best to stick to conversing about tools here.

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There is a danger of over sensitivity with virtually every statement we make. That's just the reality of the times in which we live. This article points no fingers and is only as political as the reader chooses to make it. I do not believe this article emphasized any particular agenda.

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