Every once in a while you'll stumble across a book that is just so spot on that it almost resists interpretation. It's as if someone wrote all the cogent and coherent thoughts that rattle around in your head, and did so in an intelligible way. Shop Class is one such book.
For a long time I've pondered the classic "work" environment. Increasingly the US workforce is made up of people who don't actually produce anything - they work on the margins of a product or solution, or analyze information or create new knowledge. Few people see any new product or service from conceptualization to delivery into a customer's hands. The increasing atomization of work and work processes means that most people add great depth of value over a very small portion of the value chain, and for every person on the "front lines" there are four or five support people managing IT and procurement and accounting and so forth.
What this means is that we have a workforce that rarely sees any effort to completion, and is so far removed from the actual delivery that placing quantitative measures of performance on their effort is difficult and arbitrary at best, and they know it. I suspect these jobs offer less satisfaction and demand less passion and commitment than jobs in previous years. I also suspect that many people are more interested and more dedicated to their hobbies and interests outside of work, where they find more fulfillment, than in anything they do "at work", which is a shame given the amount of time we spend at work.
The book, Shop Class as Soul Craft, provides a context for all of these thoughts and more. In the book, Matthew Crawford, who has run both a Washington DC think tank and a motorcycle repair shop, considers "work" and what work means in context. These contexts include both the "knowledge worker" and the "blue collar" worker, and the belief that blue collar work is not "thinking work". He points out that this is a relatively new concept, and that many "blue collar" roles do require thinking work - the thinking and doing are intertwined. In our educational systems we've de-emphasized "vocational" skills and yet have crying needs for people to repair our machines and build our buildings. Too many people are being directed to college because "thinking" skills are more heralded, while many people could do just as well, or perhaps even better, in a vocation or trade.
Additionally, he points out there's more connection and passion in many vocations than in many knowledge work environments. Since a craftsman or tradesman is presented with a problem, has to diagnose the problem and fix the problem, he or she sees the problem from end to end, responsible for all facets of the solution. Most knowledge workers see only a tiny portion of a problem and rarely deal with the end result. They are passionate, if at all, about the process rather than the outcome.
Crawford points out some of the problems in Florida's "Creative Class": after all, even if everyone is creative and innovative, we'll still need to build things and more importantly, repair things. He also points out that creativity is based on deep knowledge and competency, which is more common in tradesmen and craftsmen than in our traditional work world and educational world, where a premium is placed on being able to learn rather than to do. Crawford also identifies the challenges in a modern economy that Pink did: any job that can be reduced to a given set of rules, or doesn't require a local presence, is heading out of town. You can't outsource the building of a new structure or the splinting of a bone or the repair of an auto engine, because they are place specific.
I've also written before that many organizations never engage the passions and true capabilities of their employees. Most people punch an 8 to 5 clock, pushing paperwork and analyzing information, then go home to do tremendous things with their "free time" - as if they trade 8 hours of drudgery to earn a couple of hours of time exercising their interests and hobbies. Why can't we capture more of that passion and interest and find ways to harness it as part of a "job"?
Crawford gets some flack for so many philosophical references, but with a PhD in philosophy, he'd be remiss not to link back to the Greeks and other philosophers. His writing can at times seem a bit dense and overly repetitive, but finding the nuggets of great insight and the recommendations isn't hard.
We need to find the right jobs to suit the best passions and interests of everyone. Denigrating vocational education just means we have people who are better suited in other jobs spending needless time and money in college for no good reason. We also need to do a much better job helping people find their true interests and capabilities, and matching education and apprenticeship to those capabilities.
I'd like to highly recommend this book to everyone who is interested in work, and its benefits.