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.


Steven Davis said...

While it is a challenge, it is your and our duty to mentor and share what we have learned.

Keep sharing here. It is very much appreciated!

hickeymad said...


I just watched that same video myself earlier today. The thoughts going through my head were pretty much the same as the ones you so eloquently wrote in this post.

It is very much a mystery to me why there has been such a push in the past 30 years to eliminate the middle class in this country. Pure greed on the part of the 1% or simple shortsightedness I wonder?

It has been interesting to me as well to see the growing interest in woodworking and hand tools - though I am conflicted about the fact that most of this interest has come from the "leisure" class- retired folks or people of means that take up woodworking as a hobby. Where does that leave folks trying to make a living with the craft? This issue has been one that I have been struggling with. Here in Oregon, we have a strong woodworking guild. However, they seem to be doing very little to promote the business side of the craft. There are very few venues to sell our hand-made items as galleries are quickly disappearing and consumers seem to become more and more oblivious to the value of quality in their consumer purchases. Our guild seems hell-bent on destroying the ability of artisan woodworkers to make a living by teaching the craft as they seem to offer the same curriculum as our local woodworking school (NW Woodworking studio) at a fraction of the cost but with very low quality teaching standards. I wonder, what will become of our craft if people are unable to make a living at it?

I lived in Zambia for several years and was constantly frustrated at the low level of quality of the consumer items available. Most stuff was imported from china or india- and the most important factor seemed always to be low price. Because of this, the villagers could only buy super cheap and shoddy items. If they wanted a shovel for example, the only ones available were very likely to break after a months worth of use- but no-one ever complained because that was the only item available. They had no education about what quality meant. I postulate that this translated to other areas of their lives- since everything was crap anyway, there was no point in taking pride in ownership- no point in living in a village free of trash or living in a house that was not likely to fall down in a strong wind. It's much the same thing as I see happening in the USA. We shop at COSTCO or Walmart and are concerned only about getting the lowest price we can while ignoring the quality or social/environmental consequences of our purchases. We have become a throw-away society and the character of our neighborhoods and cities reflect this.

Anyway- great post. Thanks for writing and keep it up!

Freddy said...

Sir Patrick Edwards,

I will carry on the tradition for there isn't many who will, can, or care too. Everyone says there is so many woodworkers in the world, and so many furniture makers- but there are few who make a living at it, and knows a lot of the ins and outs. I strive to be just like you sir, hard working, talented, willing to share, and carry the craft on your shoulders. I believe you have started something amazing, and I look forward to sharing with others what I have learned from your teaching.

So when you pass 100 years from now, don't worry I be there buying as much as I can and spreading the word that these tools belonged to the famous Sir Edwards and this is what I learned.


Freddy Roman

OneCar Wood said...

I have been saying the same thing for awhile. People want to pay Wal-Mart prices for everything. I have been trying to get a small buisness going and it has been very hard. People just want low prices. I think that we have been trained by media and propaganda to always want new and different things anyway so why would we pay that extra price for something that will last when we really do not want it to! I have adjusted to this by just making small items that do not take a long time but are quality. Things that I can kick out. To make something that takes me 40 hours and then sit on it for a year is not feasible for me. Thanks for the blog!

OneCar Wood said...

Love this comment. Thanks!

W. Patrick Edwards said...

First of all, Freddy, as the Dali Lama says: "When you define yourself as different than others, you are a prisoner of your self." You and I are the same. We both care about higher truths and human dignity.

Perhaps I am reflecting the ideals and philosophy of the 60's, but we are both traveling the same path to enlightenment. As I am a "teacher" to you, I have had my own "teachers" and they have helped me to realize my destiny.

This is not some superficial babel. I take it seriously. That is why I consider those who ask me questions my equals. I learn as much from their questions as I believe I contribute to the answers. Life is a constant dialogue.

I am pleased at the serious and reflective comments this post generated. I take pride in posting on this blog, and am pleased that others find it worth reading.

Thank you all.

JC said...

Thanks for sharing this video, Patrick. It was both wonderful, and very sad. His shoes looked excellent, and it looks like a pretty low stress/rewarding job. I really hope that poor George can find someone with interest who will want to continue the business.

Renewable Community Power said...

I have suggested this idea before, but I think it worth suggesting again in a bit more detail after reading this post.

I think there is no doubt you have reached the status of one of the 'woodworking greats' like Maloof, Nakashima etc; certainly worthy of leaving a significant formal legacy.

I'd love to see your personal version of Ramond's Marquetry book; but where it comes with a DVD so that you can read a section then see you do it. Reading about a technique can be useful, but can also be frustrating if you just don't get what the writer is on about. Seeing it as well means it's far more likely to make sense. I know you want to create a series of video links on various techniques, but having video specifically cross-linked to text all in one package would be very special.

The videos you make now are certainly good enough quality to use, and you already have some to re-use. As you can already do it yourself there're wouldn't be a great cost; more a question of time.

I'll take the first copy if you pursue such an idea!

W. Patrick Edwards said...

I have been thinking about this concept for some time. As I have spent all my "outside the shop" time over the past 30 years sitting on non profit management corporation boards for the benefit of historic commercial business districts, I haven't found the energy to do it.

I started this outside activity in March 1984 when I created the North Park Main Street Business Improvement District. I was the President for many years and still sit on the board. I have served also on the North Park Redevelopment Project Area Committee, as well as the North Park Historic Society, the Business Improvement District Council Foundation and, for the past 4 years, as
President of the Business Improvement District Council, which is unique in America. I was appointed by a previous mayor to the Small Business Advisory Board, a position which I resigned from last Friday. I have announced my retirement from all public positions effective next March.

I expect that this will give me some time and energy to pursue your suggestion. I appreciate your comments and support.

Renewable Community Power said...

You might want to consider trying some crowdfunding - through groups like kickstarter or startsomegood - to help finance some of the costs. Crowdfunding works when there is a large peer group to contact who might be interested in helping with funding - with your past clients and your various Council/Board contacts I imagine you would have a pretty sizable group to approach.