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BIZTIPS by Art Hill

About Arthur J. (Art) Hill

arthill_photoArt Hill is Vice President, Economic Development, at Blue Mountain Community College. With an undergraduate degree in English and an M.B.A. in Finance, his career spans business ownership and management, from Fortune 100 companies to his own educational publishing company. Art has spoken at technical conferences in the U.S. and Taiwan, and is currently Chair and member of the Governor’s Workforce Response Teams in 5 counties of eastern Oregon. He is active in the BITS training consortium of Oregon community colleges, the Oregon Small Business Development Center Network, and the Eastern Oregon Regional Alliance. He enjoys sailing, mountain biking, and skiing throughout the region.


It’s Time to Re-Think Working with Our Hands

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Those of us who make our living in an office sometimes forget the value and reward of actually making or fixing something. I don’t mean designing, buying, selling, describing, or reporting it, I mean actually making it.

This point was driven home in a recent New York Times piece “The Case for Working With Your Hands” by Matthew B. Crawford. By training, Mr. Crawford is a Ph.D. with post-doctoral credentials. But by trade, he is the owner of a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia.

Mr. Crawford points to decades of neglect in our schools and communities of the training, mentoring, and practice of skilled trades in favor of preparation for careers as “knowledge workers.” As office towers from Wall Street to Hollywood Boulevard dump millions of knowledge workers back into the labor pool, it may be time to re-think a business and societal value system that somehow sees talking about, writing about, or viewing things on the internet more important than actually making or fixing them.

In community colleges, we experience the importance of having manual skills every day. Our nursing students will care for patients they can talk to and touch. Our diesel students won’t see their jobs outsourced to India because their hands have to be in the engine compartment. Our agriculture students will walk the fields of crops they have planted.

That doesn’t mean the pendulum can swing away from reading, writing, math, and critical thinking. Mr. Crawford points out that a fellow mechanic once described the metallurgy of mid-70’s Honda bearings as the frequent cause for starter motor failure. Today’s farmer relies on satellite navigation for precise fertilizer application and gets daily internet updates on global commodity prices.

In fact, even the distinction between “knowledge” jobs and “manual” jobs is disappearing. There’s plenty of manual labor in surgery and dentistry, and there’s plenty of study required of electricians and pilots. Nearly every job now requires math and language skills, along with troubleshooting and problem solving. Some are more physically demanding, others more mentally challenging, but the lines are blurring.

Many of the successful business owners we talk with at our Small Business Development Centers have this mix of manual and mental skills. From bronze foundries to microbreweries, import car specialists to telecom system installers, these are the people who run their companies but also file castings, clean vats, adjust valves, and pull wires through conduit. Through good times and bad, they are making a good living and a good life.

As Mr. Crawford concludes in his NY Times article, it is ultimately “self interest…that will compel us to take a fresh look at the trades. The question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.”

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