If I Was Starting Over, I’d Learn A trade [actually, I did]

How becoming a painter led to my writing career

The job market is changing. Even big tech companies like Google and Apple have changed their hiring standards, to the point where a degree is not necessarily a requirement. This is partly in response to the reality that good employees are hard to find, but it also represents a new understanding by HR managers that education is not always an indicator of talent, instinct, or drive. So, higher education may not be the best career move if you’re starting out. One thing that college doesn’t teach well is how to work. Not how to study, but how to work, to learn to solve problems, work your ass off when necessary, and know the joy of a job well done. There is an alternative and the demand is so great they will pay you to learn: learning a trade.

Trades have been stigmatized and it was not always that way

By trade, I mean a skillset characterized by technical knowledge and physical experience working together. Specifically, building trades like plumbers, electricians, carpenters, HVAC installers, etc. These jobs are highly skilled and pay well- better in fact than many post-college jobs, and you don’t have the burden of crushing debt that college often entails. Trades used to be respected, for good reason- we need these skilled people. However, sometime in the last thirty years there developed a belief that everyone should go to college regardless of whether that was the right move for the individual. This not only diluted the quality of universities, it stigmatized those who choose to build things rather than concepts. And it created a lot of otherwise talented people stuck in jobs that they didn’t love. At all.

Learning a trade is hard, but that knowledge is relevant forever

When I was 21, recently out of college with an English degree, broke, and in need of a job, a friend offered me work on his painting crew. They weren’t union but my friend Tom had learned the union way to paint by being trained in what was known as reform school back then, a place they sent kids who acted out in school. Instead of college prep, reform schools taught trades. This approach institutionalized the view of tradespeople as a lower class of workers, even though many of them made far more money than their college educated peers.

So, back to painting. Tom was militant about learning his skill by the book. There was a right way to do everything, and a wrong way. It was a discipline I needed badly after years of basically cruising in school. But it was also a discipline that ensured that mistakes weren’t made, that the work was perfect, and that no time was wasted in the process. And you got paid. I worked harder than I had ever imagined working- my body was tired at the end of the day! But my skills improved and it was super cool to stand in a room that was finished and know you had done a good job. We mostly did work for interior designers, so the standards were high and the work needed to be perfect. So we had to learn to be as good as it gets.

Eventually I moved on to a profession but my trade was a fallback that helped

I’d aspired to being a writer and eventually made the move to advertising copy and marketing, then to being a professional author. But during the ups and downs of that learning curve I could always go back to painting to support myself. And I enjoyed it. Still do, though I mainly help out friends with their projects.

Today, trades are highly sophisticated, requiring engineering skills and up to date knowledge of constantly changing technologies. It’s no wonder that having trade skills might make you appealing for other roles at companies like Google and Apple- you have proven problem-solving skills and work ethic. Believe me, if you don’t develop those abilities as a tradesperson, your co-workers will not let you forget it. No snowflakes there.

The reality is that trades are more stable than so-called ‘professional’ work

These jobs don’t go away. Like any other profession, technology evolves to take a lot of the grunt work out of building and sustaining things in the physical world. Nail guns replace hammers and then prefab replaces building on site. But the work still requires the years of experience that a trade offers. In fact, the roles start looking more professional than many professions as they become project management and people management jobs.

There is a movement to elevate the status of trades

The need is so great that, in desperation, the building trades organizations have begun campaigns to elevate the understanding and status of what learning a trade can lead to. There is a movement to open sophisticated trade schools and companies are paying students to learn these skills, with a job in the wings when they are ready. It’s a great opportunity.

There is one last thing I want to say about learning my trade. I learned how to finish things and take pride in what I have done. College didn’t give that to me, for various reasons, some having to do with my lack of maturity and discipline. You had no option on a painting job- you had to wade in, do the dirty work, pay attention, and get it done. When I got my first paid writing gigs, doing articles for national publications and eventually my first book deal, these skills got me through and made me into a professional writer, a trade I am proud of.

BTW, learning a trade is not a dead end. I’m a marketing executive working with growth tech companies. Tom is Director of an institute for the photonic industry. My brother, who was a carpenter, is Lead Designer for a very high-end furniture company. I can go on and on with examples like these.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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