Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hard labour

I heard an interesting thing on the radio the other day, it was on a CBC show called Spark, which is about high tech stuff. This CEO of a high tech company was talking about renovations they recently did to the building his company is in, only instead of hiring people to do the work, they did it themselves. So this CEO was out there doing carpentry and roofing and whatever else needed to be done. He said it was an enlightening experience, not to mention very enjoyable.

The CEO said that in high tech work, you're working with intangibles, a kind of virtual world that involves a lot of problem solving and creative "lateral thinking". But the building trades involve working with tangibles, real world stuff. They also involve a lot of problem-solving, but you have to think logically, tasks need to be sequenced in the correct chronological order to accomplish the work. And the end result is a real product, something you can see and touch, and has real weight.

This CEO said it was very satisfying work and he felt it brought something new and fresh to his regular work. He said he was probably the world's slowest roofer because of his extreme attention to detail, he would line up each shingle absolutely precisely to leave no gaps, and in the course of the work he examined every shingle in close-up detail.

I was listening to this and nodding my head in agreement, there is something very satisfying in working with one's hands and real materials, creating a finished product you can feel proud of at the end. And the actual process of doing the work is satisfying too. There's a certain assumption that trades that involve physical labour don't require brainwork but that is absolutely false, there is a constant problem-solving process going on.

Several years ago I lived in a leaky condo in a complex that was undergoing rehabilitation; my ground-level patio ended up being one of the lunchbreak sites for some of the workers on this project. I was literally living in the middle of a construction site. All day I would hear these guys chattering away while they worked or took breaks, and some of the conversation was quite interesting. They would talk about personal matters, political events and about the work itself. They discussed each step of the work process, all the little issues that came up along the way, and proposed and argued solutions. It was clear that this work was not a simple matter, there were always things that needed to be worked through mentally before they could be worked on physically. I found their discussions quite fascinating.

My own experience with building projects is the same, there is a constant problem-solving process going on, and constant little satisfactions in figuring out and implementing the solutions. There is a further satisfaction in using one's body to do work, it just feels good. At the end you're physically tired, but it is a good feeling.

I hear on the news that there is a growing lack of tradespeople, there are fewer and fewer plumbers, electricians and carpenters, fewer and fewer young people being encouraged to go into these kinds of careers. It seems that our culture glorifies "brainwork" and the kind of work that requires a university degree, at the expense of the trades.

When I was living in that construction site there was a bit of work that had to be done inside my condo, a drywaller was fixing some of the holes made by the work being done outside. He was in his mid-40s and talking about retiring. He said this would be his last project, he had bought a little place in the interior of BC and intended to retire there. At age 45.

He said that he used to have several apprentices working with him at any one time, but now he hardly ever had apprentices; young people were flocking to the computer careers and simply were not interested in learning drywalling anymore.

Where you earn so much money you get to retire at 45.


Barbara Anne said...

Amen sister! Since we've had a veggie garden and canned or blanched/frozen so many fresh foods from garden and grocery, I've found there is much problem solving in this endeavor and great satisfaction.

DH is a carpenter so I hear you about the trades. Sad commentary on the world around us that skilled tradesmen and women are undervalued. It's a fact that many of the beautiful items and buildings we admire from previous centuries couldn't be built or made today because the needed skills are lost.


Annie said...

Hi Barbara Anne, this idea has been rolling around my mind for some time now, and I hear there is even a book out now about it, about the value of physical labour. And definitely gardening and preserving are part of that, all the so-called women's work is. A garden is a co-creative effort, you're constantly wrangling with soil fertility, weather, plant preferences, bugs and other plant predators!

Hugs to you too, Annie