The Case for Working with Your Hands, cover

This book explains Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good. The problem solving skills of practical work should receive more respect.

Practical Job Satisfaction

In The Case for Working with Your Hands Michael Crawford argues that traditional practical trades should be given more respect.

He shows how his work as motorcycle mechanic is more about discovery and interpretation of information and, problem solving than it is about routine mechanical tasks. He explains how such jobs have been debased yet they are the ones that impact people’s lives both as workers and as customers.

Traditional Trade or Shop Skill Jobs Cannot be Moved Offshore

As more and more and increasingly high-level white collar knowledge based jobs are moved offshore the traditional trades such as plumbers and electricians remain or even increase in demand. As a result the earning power and job security for people with such skills improves. As Crawford points out if one has leaking plumbing one needs a plumber on site; it is not a job that cannot be undertaken remotely.

The Case for Working with Your Hands is about more than job security and earning power. It is really about job satisfaction from doing the whole job. The author points out that like mass manufacturing many, perhaps most, office jobs are increasingly debased into knowledge factory roles where each person does only part of a job. As result the job satisfaction disappears and he work is less intellectually stimulating.

Much job satisfaction comes from the intellectual challenge of problem solving that is rarely recognised as part of the practical trades. Yet problem solving is fundamental because the work is rarely taken in a fully controlled environment. Anyone who has done serious work on their own car or home will realise that it is not as easy as it is made to look by a skilled tradesmen. One only has to watch the home makeover (or do it yourself disaster) shows on television to realise that problem solving is key.

Yet shop and trade skills have been downgraded in the educational systems of most developed countries. The work has lost standing yet it has a much bigger impact on most people’s quality of life than most office jobs. Matthew Crawford in The Case for Working with your Hands suggests that there is a new found respect for such work as even some highly-paid office workers switch to these roles as a more honest and complete way of working.

The Mixed Writing Style Makes the Case for Practical Work

Crawford’s arguments in The Case for Working with Your Hands suggest a new respect for trade and shop skills is justified. However the case is made most eloquently not by his words but by his writing styles.

Most of the book feels as though it was written by an academic, a consultant or fellow of think-tank – all of which Michael Crawford is or has been. It is therefore well argued but with the complex and over-wrought language of such writers.

Passion, Enthusiasm and Even Joy in the Problem Solving Challenge of Manual Trades

However the book comes alive with Crawford’s enthusiasm when he writes about his practical experiences as either an electrician or a motorcycle mechanic. The language is passionate, personal and lively. It makes his case much more strongly than the worthy bulk of the book. The satisfaction he gets from his practical work maintaining traditional motorcycles shines though.

The Case for Working with Your Hand shares some of the philosophy of Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from which it quotes but without quite the spiritual depth. The Case for Working with Your Hand is aimed at a different reader and time butmakes important points about the nature of education, work and job satisfaction. Readers should consider how many professionals, accountants, doctors and the like) spend their leisure time or retirement as woodworkers, gardeners, house remodelers or restorers of classic cars and motorcycles – such people clearly feel the need for the satisfaction that comes from a job well done.

The Case for Working with Your Hands, Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (2010, ISBN: 978-0-670-91874-4) is published in hardback by Penguin Viking at £16.99.

About the Author

Michael Crawford has a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. He is a fellow at Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia and runs an independent motorcycle repair shop.


First appeared on Suite101

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