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April 18, 2010 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Forget the PhD and become a mechanic. Overqualified and underworked? Then try working with your hands, says Matthew Crawford, PhD. It’s by far the cleverest thing you can do.
posted by infini (56 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Yeah, no fault of yours infini, but it seems like this is basically the only article that Matthew Crawford ever writes. -- cortex



 
A lot of mechanics I know are living hand-to-mouth these days. I can't imagine there is a 'great' living for vintage motorcycle repairmen in this economy, but at least he's happy, right?
posted by parmanparman at 12:37 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I know I've read this article before.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 12:39 PM on April 18, 2010


I thought jobs for independent repair shops were going away because more and more cars are being built with proprietary computer systems that you need to buy the $100,000 diagnostic system from each car company if you want to fix it.
I guess the answer is get a job at a dealership?
I do agree that the so-called "smart" kids should be given the same opportunity for vocational training that other kids get. In high school I didn't have the option to do that stuff because I got good grades.
posted by amethysts at 12:41 PM on April 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Aha.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 12:41 PM on April 18, 2010


After graduating from college, into a recession, with a relatively useless liberal arts degree, I very seriously considered becoming an auto mechanic, even though it would have involved going back for more schooling. I ended up deciding against it only because of the considerable exposure to toxic chemicals.

Instead, I'm a computer software "mechanic," souping up and repairing big ERP systems. Slightly less toxic and more lucrative. Probably less gratifying though.
posted by mneekadon at 12:44 PM on April 18, 2010


The job market for auto/truck mechanics is pretty crappy in the US these days since so many dealerships shutdown in the last couple years.
posted by octothorpe at 12:51 PM on April 18, 2010


I've worked with ERP systems in the past. I'd consider them toxic, but in a different way. For kids coming out of school, I think mechanics might be a good way to go at a dealership, like I hear that BMW and Mercedes train their mechanics and keep them fairly well paid. The smaller shops are starting to die off though.

If I had to do it over again though I might have been an electrician. I know a couple of them and they make CRAZY money.
posted by barc0001 at 12:52 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm with barc0001.
Any of those things involving your house that the average person doesn't have the knowledge/time to accumulate the knowledge to repair (i.e. electrician, plumber, etc.) are ALWAYS good jobs. Car mechanic? Not so good anymore, mainly for the reasons already pointed out here. That, and Americans tend not to keep their cars much past warranty now a days, so they really only get worked on at the dealer.
As far as I'm concerned, if I had it all to do over again:
Bartender. Not in a bar--that's the farm team--but in a restaurant. Fewer hard core drunks to deal with, you really only have to work from 5p.m. to about 11p.m (sometimes off earlier). You get at least minimum wage hourly plus all of the cash (and largely un-taxable) tips.
posted by kaiseki at 1:00 PM on April 18, 2010


I do agree that the so-called "smart" kids should be given the same opportunity for vocational training that other kids get. In high school I didn't have the option to do that stuff because I got good grades.

No, you DID have the option of taking that, problem is that you didn't. No teacher or guidance counselor can prevent you from taking a class that you have the prerequisites for. You probably didn't get to take it because:

1. You didn't take the prerequisite classes of shop, general mechanics, etc.

or

2. You just didn't request to take it instead of AP European history.


Enough with the whining though...
posted by hal_c_on at 1:01 PM on April 18, 2010


Brings to mind Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig.
posted by ericb at 1:02 PM on April 18, 2010


Become a mechanic if you like, but why give up the PhD?
posted by aesacus at 1:04 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think this was already covered in Office Space.

(I did consider becoming a beautician though. Ultimately ended up as a librarian.)
posted by missrachael at 1:04 PM on April 18, 2010


From the second line: 0verqualified and underworked? Then try working with your hands.
A mechanic, plumber, electrician, roofer, etc etc are all fairly well paid skilled jobs. Demand may vary from place to place; and N. America is not neccesarily the only place in the world this could be a good idea especially for younger more mobile people. Europe has lots of immigrant professional labour. Obviously its better to have a skill and work and thus a pay check; than a degree and no work.
posted by adamvasco at 1:06 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well repairing vintage bikes is sort of the apex of a hobby isn't it? The vast majority of mechanics aren't going to be dealing with rich burghers who like to nerd out on the thing you do for the living. That's sort of like saying, "Being a used car dealer isn't what you think. I sold used Ferraris and Bugattis to collectors, and it was intellectual!"
posted by geoff. at 1:06 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Aha.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 12:41 PM on April 18


More recently.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:07 PM on April 18, 2010


No, you DID have the option of taking that, problem is that you didn't. No teacher or guidance counselor can prevent you from taking a class that you have the prerequisites for. You probably didn't get to take it because:

I don't know about the original commenter, but I absolutely DID NOT have the chance to take any classes that were outside of the college-prep track at my high school.

As in, I was told "We will not allow you to take this course, it is for students that do not intend to go on to college."
posted by FritoKAL at 1:08 PM on April 18, 2010


GRAR so it seems like once a year our man crawford finds a newspaper willing to write it up for him eh? is this a double then or just an echo?
posted by infini at 1:11 PM on April 18, 2010


Um, yeah.

Try getting anywhere in a garage or similar establishment with a PHD, much less tolerating the coworkers. On carpentry jobsites alone, the level of discourse is, well, worse than filthy. "Professor" would be the nicest word they would call you.

My parents have trouble finding work because they're educated- at least in my town, there's these 'old-boy' networks that you get pointedly excluded from and seen as an outsider if you don't go along with the misogyny, the dirty jokes, the really low level of discourse. You're not allowed to act intelligent, and if you do, you will be shunned.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:13 PM on April 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm also reminded of Jack Coleman, former President of Haverford College who "worked as a ditchdigger, dishwasher, short-order cook, uranium field roughneck and laborer in a marble-crushing plant..."and a very good trashman."

'Blue-Collar Journal: A College President's Sabbatical' by John Royston Coleman.
posted by ericb at 1:13 PM on April 18, 2010


There's a reason I'm a rare book conservator.
posted by Shadan7 at 1:13 PM on April 18, 2010


Yeah, maybe a Matthew Crawford tag can prevent the future reappearance.
posted by cashman at 1:13 PM on April 18, 2010


Thanks, hal_c_on, but at my high school and apparently FritoKAL's, it really and truly did not work that way. Maybe it's my own fault in that I could have argued my point with them, but it really seemed like the doors were closed. But I still think it's a damn shame that I and alot of kids get out of high school totally unprepared to do anything but go after useless degree after useless degree. If we have to sit there every day for 12 years, why can't everyone be encouraged to learn how to do something worth a paycheck? I don't think that purely academic pursuits are worthless, but not everyone is suited for it long-term, even if they don't get in fights and behave in class and get good grades.
posted by amethysts at 1:25 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


This guy got his degree, then got a slave-driven job faking abstracts.

Therefore mind-work is crap and hand-work is noble.

The PhD was wasted on him.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:29 PM on April 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


roofer

You can make solid money as a journeyman roofer, but it's rare that your body will let you continue that work much past 45 or so. It's brutally difficult, and it will slowly break you. It can be a good way to train yourself into something else, as you can get to journeyman level quite quickly if you're bright and motivated, but it's not a good long-term career option. You either have to go into management or find something else to do by your mid-30s, or you're in trouble.
posted by Malor at 1:32 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


this is 100% hipster mentality right here. "I was going to be a CEO but I didn't feel like it so instead i repair vintage motorcycles."
posted by rebent at 1:34 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Try getting anywhere in a garage or similar establishment with a PHD, much less tolerating the coworkers. On carpentry jobsites alone, the level of discourse is, well, worse than filthy. "Professor" would be the nicest word they would call you.


I find this comment very amusing.

I'm in the trades; one of the jokes you play on the new guy is to tell him to go get a "Sky Hook" from the foreman. He will tell you to ask someone else and that guy will send you to the other side of the job for it. At some point the newbie will get tired of looking and return without it. Everyone laughs, and the new guy is like what? Then someone tells him there ain't no such thing as a "Sky Hook" Har har har. Dumb joke but I think I would really laugh if they played it on a Physics PHD.
posted by nola at 1:35 PM on April 18, 2010


Also, be aware that there are many shoddy roofing companies with very poor safety records, and it's quite possible to end up dead or crippled on a roof. It's not a profession to take up lightly, and it's probably not something to stick with.
posted by Malor at 1:36 PM on April 18, 2010


Articles like this remind me of how the townspeople, if held under siege, would pour all of their crap and boiling wastewater onto the heads of the barbarians outside the wall.
posted by nervousfritz at 1:38 PM on April 18, 2010


You can make solid money as a journeyman roofer, but it's rare that your body will let you continue that work much past 45 or so.

Man is that the truth. Every roofer I've ever known was as thin as a stringbean, and brown as a baseball mitt from all the sun they've got over the years. Most of them with not a tooth left in their head. Poor bastards.
posted by nola at 1:40 PM on April 18, 2010


done.

Otoh, I still think its timely given today's economy. I'd interpret it a little more broadly - not simply PhD ---> mechanic but instead look at it from the PoV of what is a PhD and is it necessarily useful in every circumstance and does it in today's world hold you back from being relevant?

This is an inherent conflict I've identified as part of an analysis on the work being done in the broad space of "poverty alleviation" by academics/institutions on one hand and social entreprenuers/hackers/makers/visionary ngos on the other. "Responsiveness" and "Relevance" to real world issues and conditions is where the two boxes (broadly generalizing) diverge. I "saw" my friends on twitter get real on Haiti and actually make a real difference all the while teh "official" or "qualified" organizations dithered. I "see" citations and references and journals held up as the metric of quality insights while blogs, discussion boards and twitter sharings from the field are either unknown, ignored or not considered worthy.

With information flow, access and the read/write web making available realtime realworld data to those in the field making a difference, the irony of the kudos going to some guy who writes it up in a journal is *&&^^%$. This blogpost from Stephen M Walt at Foreign Policy captures some of these issues well,

Indeed, given the concerns I've sometimes expressed about the "cult of irrelevance" in academe, I've come to believe that blogging ought to be actively encouraged in the academic world. I'm not saying that all political scientists, historians, or economists ought to start their own blogs, but we shouldn't penalize scholars who do engage in this activity and we might even consider rewarding it, the same way we should reward scholars who care enough about public service to use their talents and training working in the public or NGO sector. I

t would be good for the IR field if academic scholars were expected to write a few blog posts every now and then, if only for the purpose of self-examination. If the typical academic had to write a blog for two weeks, they might discover they had nothing to say to their fellow citizens, couldn't say it clearly, or that nobody cared. That experience might even lead a few of my fellow academics to scratch their heads and ask if they were investing their research time appropriately, which would be all to the good.


I wish sometimes that the over educated ivory tower types who've never sloshed around in the mud in a township yet feel entitled to their opinion on "understanding user needs" or whatever would put their thoughts here on the blue to understand what real citations, references, debates and arguments for sound logic, reasoning and relevance mean.
posted by infini at 1:47 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Besides, there isn't any work for those of us that already do this grunt work. The last thing we need are a bunch of white collar guys showing up looking for work. I'm not gonna train 'em, I'm too old to teach a green man. They wouldn't last a week anyway. Yeah, I said it. Don't get mad, you'll stain the pits of your Oxford button down.
posted by nola at 1:48 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Crawford has a pretty cavalier attitude about this, as if one can just go start wrenching on stuff and make money. Sounds like his original premise might be based on Click and Clack the Car Talk guys.

I used to be a mechanic and by the time I got really good at it, removing and replacing a couple of engines or major assemblies a day, I was sick of it.
posted by snsranch at 1:50 PM on April 18, 2010


Here's the deal with becoming a viable automobile mechanic today. You have to get training. Training today is pretty-much the domain of a very small set of national corporations...WyoTech, Lincoln Tech, UTI, etc. There are some large regional schools, too. (some community colleges may provide viable training. Many, though, are not up-to-date.)

These places are expensive. A full course in these schools can easily cost the same as a private college. The down-side, of course, is that, even in a good economy, none of the jobs the kids get trained for pay anywhere near the jobs a private college trains you for. In this economy, the problem is even worse.

In this economy, you now have kids with 30K or more of school debt with no jobs and no real skills to fall-back on. To compound the problem, a large number of them, if not most, are carrying a large amount of private, adjustable-rate debt, because federal loans fall quite short due to certain ways the schools are set-up. In the end, the kids have to rely on private loans to make-up what federal assistance doesn't cover. Until recently, when certain laws were amended, a lot of these schools had the nasty habit of driving the kids to the "approved" or "preferred" lender...basically a sweetheart deal between the school and the private lender.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:52 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I grew up surrounded by people who had training and education for "good jobs" but either made their livelyhoods doing "hand work" or had hobbies that were making them more money than their jobs. My dad was an insurance investigator. He gave it up when his firm moved and he became a full time auto mechanic repairing imports cars and racing in a non pro auto racing series. My uncle is a county politician, but used to be an electrician at nights and on weekends to make more money than his county job did. My father's friends were sometimes doctors, sometimes lawyers, sometimes famous actors: all of whom spent their weekends and free time elbow deep in greasy cars. Some made more money doing body work or building engines or supplying parts than they did in their day jobs.

On the other hand, things have really changed. Becoming a full time mechanic is a hard job, and requires a LOT of money for the initial shop setup. Modern cars are much harder to work with, if you are not tech savy. It used to be all you needed was a hoist, some wrenches, and a hammer. Now... not so much.
posted by strixus at 1:59 PM on April 18, 2010


Want to make real money? Repair iPhones and clean off spyware.

I spent 15 years in college, write professionally, and have sidiculous credibility amongst brand strategists and guerilla marketers, but I thank myself everyday for sticking with computer repair.

Of course, for money that you can't even begin to describe, two words:

Data. Recovery.
posted by humannaire at 1:59 PM on April 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you have an advanced degree, leave it off your resume. We hire our workers for the long haul; the last thing I want is to have someone leave when the novelty of the job wears off or the job market turns around.
posted by digsrus at 1:59 PM on April 18, 2010


one of the jokes you play on the new guy is to tell him to go get a "Sky Hook" from the foreman

That one is nearly universal, although the target changes depending on the profession. In my Dad's old job (painting and wallpapering), you sent the newbie out for striped paint.

And as soon as they asked for it at any paint store, they would tell them that they were all out, but try that paint shop at the other end of town. Who would inevitably do the same.
posted by Paragon at 2:00 PM on April 18, 2010


by the time I got really good at it, removing and replacing a couple of engines or major assemblies a day, I was sick of it.

That's why I never went into mechanics. I was afraid having to do it as work would spoil the pleasure.

My sister has a CE, and she has the same problem. The stuff that was fun in school has become a whip-driven chore that she puts 12-plus hours a day into.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:11 PM on April 18, 2010


I always enjoyed sending out the new barbacks for left handed tap handles.
posted by Jawn at 2:12 PM on April 18, 2010


Sky Hook

Heh. In the restaurant business, we played the same joke on new hires, except the MacGuffin was called a "Bacon Stretcher".

(Oh -- and being a bartender in a fine-dining establishment isn't that smart a career move, either. I did it for almost 15 years and I can count on one hand the number of times I got off work at 11 PM. It's usually more like 1 to 3 AM depending on the cleaning schedule. And if the place serves lunch, there's a good chance you'll get off at 2 AM and hafta be back at work at 10 AM.)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:12 PM on April 18, 2010


one of the jokes you play on the new guy is to tell him to go get a "Sky Hook" from the foreman

I bet there's a collection of these somewhere (if not, there should be). Here's a few:
Airplane mechanic: Prop wash
Drywall installer: Drywall stretcher
Machinist: hole mover
Blacksmith: "Go take this pipewrench and un-screw the horn off the anvil"
Mechanic: Muffler bearing
posted by 445supermag at 2:14 PM on April 18, 2010


Mechanic: 5/18ths wrench.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:17 PM on April 18, 2010


If I had to do it all over again, I'd be a crane operator. Sit on your ass smoking cigarettes and watch all the guys beneath you work. Of course, if your attention wanders, you could kill a bunch of people and wreak millions of dollars in damage, but hey.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:17 PM on April 18, 2010


You can make solid money as a journeyman roofer, but it's rare that your body will let you continue that work much past 45 or so.

I used to work as a house painter before I finished my BS and there is no way that I could go back to that. It's long, hard, backbreaking, dangerous, toxic work that pays shit and gives no benefits and you end up losing two to three months of work every winter. There's nothing romantic about climbing forty foot ladders, breathing toxic fumes and getting yelled at for taking a five minute breather.
posted by octothorpe at 2:22 PM on April 18, 2010


I was lucky apparently, I took both college prep courses and some vocational classes (Electronics, drafting and metalworking). The original plan was to go to college for robotics, but I got sidetracked and ended up with a journalism degree.

Now, as a stay-at-home dad, when I go back to school, it'll be to finish up an electronics technician program, which I may or may not use as a stepping stone to a EE degree. (Our local Tech College has a partnership with an engineering school).

If I stop at elec tech, I'll probably end up repairing things for companies, and I'd be happy. After working an office job for a little while, I realized I'd never be happy in that sort of situation.
posted by drezdn at 2:32 PM on April 18, 2010


This guy got his degree, then got a slave-driven job faking abstracts.

Therefore mind-work is crap and hand-work is noble.


If he was unique, I'd say you were right. But I work right there on the cuttingest edge of technology where we make measurements and report results and want everything to be just so, right? A few years ago I was given the criticism that I was "too theoretical" and warned that in industry you'll look better if you're running assays and leaving the basic investigative work to academia.

I describe the stuff I was playing with towards the bottom of this answer. I have used what I worked out to resolve some pretty convoluted technical problems and have finally gotten some people to where they're actually listening to what I'm saying, but it's been an uphill battle.

I went into the sciences because I'm good at problems solving. But problem solving isn't that important when knowing what the hell you're doing keeps getting thrown under the wheels of "there's never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over". Couple that with the prices the people in the back of "This Old House" and "Fine Homebuilding" charge for woodwork that I am capable of and the fact that my corporate masters lay off hundreds of scientists every two or three years and suddenly it's hard for me to even imagine arguments against what Dr. Crawford is saying.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:37 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Try getting anywhere in a garage or similar establishment with a PHD, much less tolerating the coworkers. On carpentry jobsites alone, the level of discourse is, well, worse than filthy. "Professor" would be the nicest word they would call you.


How did you hit the P and L keys with your pinkie finger raised so high in the air, Professor?
posted by meadowlark lime at 2:38 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


A lot of mechanics I know are living hand-to-mouth these days
that's what my mechanic told me back in college when I caught him overcharging me by thirty bucks for a part (okay, it's his right to add markup but I was poor and had the web). that business makes them no money and they always get yelled at by people.
posted by krautland at 2:40 PM on April 18, 2010


I read the older FPP, went out and bought Crawford's book. Interesting read, but there are probably two things worth noting that are absent from the linked article:

1. Crawford didn't go straight from his quasi-academic NGO or the abstract manufacturer to the tools; he'd been working on and around motorcycles and electric systems since he was a teenager.
2. Crawford comes across as kind of a hyper-individualist pain in the arse, academically, and the think-tank he went to work for was one of those right-wing paid lobby ones. (ie. where people with very low tolerances for workplace bullshit are probably ill-suited, regardless of the nature of the labour or their politics)

Anyway, it was a decent enough paperback on the political economy of insecure "knowledge work" and offices. I'm still either way on his appeal to ditch cubicles and take up spanners for the reasons everybody else is.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:43 PM on April 18, 2010


Headlight fluid.
posted by rifflesby at 2:44 PM on April 18, 2010


And when I was a stocktaker (almost the definition of no-skill manual labour) while I was at uni the trick they'd play on new workers was to wait for the break, and then urgently tell them to "go and find T". The context was that T. was a compulsive masturbator and the new worker would probably wind up bursting in on T as he was winding up.

Jesus I'm glad I'm not doing that any more
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:47 PM on April 18, 2010


Jesus I'm glad I'm not doing that any more

Yeah? Well think about how poor T feels......
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:52 PM on April 18, 2010


I am very good at digging.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:56 PM on April 18, 2010


How did you hit the P and L keys with your pinkie finger raised so high in the air, Professor?

1) Make joke (penis length reference or other "earthy" theme a plus).
2) Make second joke at co-workers expense (should follow theme set in part 1).
3) Smile.
4) Repeat as necessary.
5) Don't get all whiny when someone welds your lunch box to the work bench.

During college I worked summers at a steel mill.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:56 PM on April 18, 2010


The nice thing about this Zen and the art of motorcycle maintainence is that it gives you enough time to use your liberal arts skills to write a book that can subsidize your need for parts for your other job.
posted by Postroad at 3:12 PM on April 18, 2010


Philospher not employed as philosopher. News at 11.
posted by Damienmce at 3:16 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


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