23rd July, 2017

In the digital age, we rediscover the joy of working with hands

Builders ask each other: “Are you still on the tools?” which means actually working with one’s hands in the construction trade. I think it is a valuable metaphor for how you conduct your career: do you still practise your craft? And if you’ve given it up: do you miss it?

I know that in the restaurant business, award-winning chefs frequently graduate from cooking in the kitchen to supervising and even owning restaurants.

But by making the move from the back to the front of house or even the boardroom, many miss the excitement and satisfaction of preparing wonderful dishes and leading a kitchen brigade — practising the skill that made them successful in the first place. Cooking in a restaurant is a creative art, with tangible results, where you receive immediate feedback and gratitude — and plenty of human interaction. Being a proprietor can seem sterile and distant by comparison.

Matthew B Crawford, in his book The Case for Working with Your Hands, has written eloquently about the importance of making things and the romance of craft — be it car repair, plumbing or carpentry. He dismisses the middle-class snobbery which implies that all “good” jobs are managerial, office jobs.

It is fascinating how many highly qualified people in executive occupations spend their leisure time in practical pursuits such as gardening, restoring classic cars, modelling, metalworking and so forth, in contrast to the screen- and paper- based nature of their day jobs.

A lot of educated people look down on manual labour. Our culture tends to see blue-collar jobs as less rewarding and important than white collar, professional work such as law, banking, accounting, journalism, architecture and so forth. But there is as much fulfilment to be had in a workshop as an office. Many of the high-flyers I meet working in the City in finance are pretty miserable — on a treadmill of a long commute, burdensome school fees, slaving away for clients they hate. By contrast, surveys show that many people in mundane jobs are content.

Meanwhile, a new book by Richard Ocejo, Masters of Craft, subtitled Odd Jobs in The New Economy, describes how bartending, distilling, barbering and butchering are now fashionable jobs for certain educated Millennials.

Acquiring artisanal skills in these fields has become important to a new generation. Gentrifying neighbourhoods in places such as London and New York are full of brewers, barber shops, bars, cafes and suchlike, staffed by these new craftsmen and women. Bakers and baristas are suddenly respectable careers, which years ago were looked down upon by the middle class.

In the 21st century they are being embraced by graduates who have fallen in love with outstanding bread and coffee, and want to translate their passion into a living — and perhaps a business of their own.

There are advantages to learning a trade skill. For a start, you don’t end up in a cubicle in a giant office. These sorts of jobs can’t really be outsourced or offshored — the roads will always need repairing, the electrical grid would collapse without maintenance, canteens will always need cooks.

Increasingly, university graduates are questioning the worth of an academic degree, when they spend three years studying and not earning, while accumulating perhaps £50,000 in borrowings — yet could ultimately be paid less than a bricklayer, despite their qualifications.

Many of us in managerial-type positions deal with theoretical stuff such as subscription agreements, share prices, annual accounts, board meetings, rather than tangibles such as new buildings, a lovely meal, a mended bike.

I can still remember all the physical jobs I had when I was a student, working in factories, laboratories, kitchens and so forth. But all the hundreds of board meetings I’ve attended over the decades all rather merge into one.

Many of the most impressive entrepreneurs with whom I’ve partnered have worked their way up from a manual job. They command the respect of the workforce because they know every task in the business. They have hands-on knowledge of the difficulties of each role, giving them insight into how to recruit, motivate and train staff. Occasionally they will spend time “on the tools” to remain familiar with the craft, and remind themselves from whence they came.

Of course, in the digital age, knowledge workers will tend to be more productive and economically valuable than manual labour, but shortages of plumbers, chefs and mechanics are proof that such skills are important and remain in demand — especially if there are fewer immigrant workers. We need as many craftspeople as possible to stay on the tools.