Monday, November 25, 2013

The Future of American Trades, Part II

Contrast this video with the previous post.  The video of George was shot objectively, simply letting him tell the story of his life working at a trade that is almost obsolete, and what the future holds for him.

This video, with a much higher production value, tells the story of Eric and what he has done with his life, and how he is changing the future.

Eric, George and I are all from the same generation.  They are my brothers.

This film should inspire you!

Blue Ox Woodworks

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Future of American Trades

Hands to Work
This morning I discovered a post on the internet which included a video of a man named George who has made shoes for 40 years.  As I watched the video, I immediately recognized the tools and methods I use in my workshop to repair and upholster furniture.  Most of all, I recognized his hands.  People often remark about how my hands look, and I am always surprised that they are "unusual" in any respect.   However, when I see another man's hands, who has made a career out of hand work, I understand what they are talking about.

It reminds me of an English TV show many years ago, titled "Hands" which, unfortunately, is no longer being produced.  "Made by Hand," "Handwork," "Handmade,"and other similar terms are used so often that they lose their significance.  Seeing a person's hands at work on a skill or trade that takes years to master reinforces the true meaning of these terms, and I instinctively stop and reflect on the process which experience makes look easy.

Here is the video: Hand Made Shoes

As I listened to George relate his story, I was struck by how direct and realistic his evaluation of his life's work was.  In particular, his remark that he can't find a worker with a "good work ethic" to pass his knowledge on to, is exactly the same thing I have said over the years.  I began to reflect on how many specific trades will become extinct during the next decades, simply because people like George get old and the business dies with them.

Obviously, from a strictly economic sense, it is fine to have shoes made in China where people are paid pennies a day to make shoes for the masses.  There are a lot of people in the world who need shoes, and I suspect that cheap shoes provide a necessary good.  But at what cost, really?

I was born 65 years ago.  I remember the introduction of television.  I remember the rise of the middle class and watched, in confusion, as Reagan introduced changes that began to attack the middle class and allow the rise of the super rich.  I look at the situation now and am dismayed at the condition of the middle class and how the poor unemployed members of our society are attacked for being "lazy."

Well, where are the jobs?  Where are the productive and rewarding jobs that you could count on to provide work during the post war years?  Jobs like the steel industry, lumber industry, making cars or houses, even making shoes?  Without jobs there are no consumers, except at the WalMart price point.

One of the real problems is the elimination of trade schools and work related classes in schools.  Auto shop, metal shop, wood shop, and all the other related classes that gave students a chance to work with their hands have disappeared, except in rare cases.  Without teachers and students to learn the trades, it becomes difficult to create a working class to continue the trades.

How life has changed during my lifetime.

For example, I remember in 1967 I was in college, working 20 hours a week in the Physics department and carrying a full load of classes at UCSD.  I was paid $2.67/hour, which was a dollar more than the minimum wage, so I was doing well.  Tuition was affordable, books were expensive but I watched my budget, and lived on campus.  The next year, I was looking for a small house to purchase, and found one in a good neighborhood for $8,500.  I needed my father to cosign the loan, since I was young and had no credit history.

He refused to sign, as he thought the house was too much for me to afford.  "Your payments are going to be $85 a month!  How do you expect to pay that?" he demanded.

Well, during those days, even on a low wage, you could earn enough in a month to make a car payment with one week's income, a house payment with the second week's income, buy food and clothing with the third week's income, and the last week became "discretionary" spending for entertainment or saving.

That is what the middle class lifestyle was like before Reagan.  (I should note that it was not just Reagan who led this attack on middle class.  It has been a long, sustained attack by those on the right who, for reasons I cannot imagine (except greed) have been successful over the past 30 years.)  The Democrats have either stood by while this happened, or actually helped in the process.  There is plenty of blame to go around for both sides.  I mean, Clinton signed NAFTA and repealed the Glass-Steagall act, setting the stage for the banks to gamble with our hard earned savings.

Doesn't anyone remember Henry Ford, one of the captains of industry, who famously said, "Workers need to make enough money to buy my cars."  (I am paraphrasing here.  The actual quote is:
"There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: make the best quality goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.")

I heard that if WalMart simply raised the cost of a package of its tube socks by a few pennies, they would be able to afford health care for all their workers.  CNN yesterday related the news that Switzerland is considering passing a law limiting the ratio of CEO compensation to worker compensation at 12 to 1.  Looking online just now, I noted that in America the current average CEO wage is $12,259,894/year and the average worker wage is $34,645/year.  That is a ratio of 354:1.

Henry Ford was not worried about shareholders and corporate profits.  He was worried that his workers would have productive jobs and be able to afford to consume his goods.  How times and priorities have changed in a century.

In any event, watching George go about making shoes, and listening to him talk about his future made me think, long and hard about my life.  I am doing the same thing, and the results will probably be the same for me.  My business will be liquidated, the tools sold, the wood thrown out, and the knowledge lost, except for what I can post on this blog.  That is why I am compelled to contribute whatever I can to help those who might be interested in keeping this profession alive.

Bottom line:  We all need shoes.  We all need jobs.  One and the same.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mr. Roubo at Ecole Boulle

Mr. Roubo's Book
From time to time I find myself actually reading posts from my own blog.  Some times I am impressed with what I wrote and often I realize I left something important out or what I was trying to say was not as clear as I would like.

Today I put down my English copy of Roubo, which I have read twice, and went back to the computer to read my last post.  That was when I remembered my early conversations with Christopher Schwartz about writing the Preface to the new edition.  My post on "Roubo Redux" left out one of the most important events in my life as it related to Mr. Roubo.  So I went back to my email conversation and pulled up these photos to share.

I Love Libraries
As I spent several years at ecole Boulle as a student, it was my pleasure to explore the school and meet other professors and their workshops.  At some point, I opened a door and found myself in a library.  What a pleasant surprise!  It somehow had not occurred to me that ecole Boulle would have a library, but as soon as I discovered its existence I began to spend a lot of time searching its stacks.  It was full of some amazing books, mostly in French, but still exciting.

Title Page with Inscription
The first book I asked for was Roubo.  The librarian smiled and returned with an original first edition of the same.  I carefully placed it on the table and opened the cover.  I still remember, as I sat quietly in the center of the library, with the sunlight raking across the desk from the 19th century windows,  how I stopped breathing when I saw the inscription.

"A Camille Pouplin affectueux souvenir de la petite fille de Roubo.  Adele Margolle"

Handwritten in ink was the dedication: "To Camille Poupin friendly souvenir from the grand daughter of Roubo. Adele Margolle."
Roubo's Grand Daughter's hand

Not only was this particular copy of Roubo's work directly from the family but it is entirely possible that it was a copy that Mr. Roubo himself owned!  I imagined his hands turning the pages exactly as I was doing.  It struck me that I was sitting in a French school, named after the greatest cabinetmaker of France, reading a book written by one of the most famous authors of the trade.

It just doesn't get any more real than that.

How could I have not included this little story in my post?