If I had It To Do Over….

I’ve had a friend since I was 12 who, once he was 30, decided that he’d better get a skill or a trade. He was tired of getting minimum wage jobs. He became an apprentice to a plumber and years later decided to retire at age 55 or so.

Loves hunting and fishing, and spends a large amount of time traveling around with his 5th wheel trailer.

He was an excellent plumber. What impressed me, years ago, when he was visiting me (he lives about 100 miles away) – I told him that the urinal in my office always flushed like Niagara Falls. (we are talking plumbin’ stuff!).

You’d flush that thing and better stand back so you don’t get hit!

He examined the problem, and determined that it had the wrong valve.

All of these plumbers over the years, in an effort to “fix the problem”, just looked at the existing valve and ordered a new one off the same number.

As someone once said, “assumption is the mother of all fark ups”.

He said something that always stayed with me: “Whether the economy is up or down, if your toilet is stopped, that is a purchase you won’t defer“. Like me, he has a self-deprecating sense of humor, referring to himself as a “doo-doo technician”.

But most of his work was in new construction. All the contractors in his area knew him and many wanted him when they were building new homes.

Higher-end homes.

He didn’t believe in using cheaper materials or short cuts.

I graduated from a 4 year university. At the time, the counselor told me “I need to know what your major will be by Wednesday”.

I took a list, and decided that “government and foreign affairs” would be interesting.

It was a year or so later when I was wondering why I was working so hard with little time for electives, that I discovered that I had unwittingly picked 2 majors.

And I will say this – the school is known in this field – there are a few of their professors on the Rolodex of national news bureaus whom they call for their comments.

But in the real world? I suppose unless I worked in the state department it wasn’t very helpful in my life.

I ended up getting drafted 6 months after my graduation (how that happened is a bit comical and worth a post on its own). I look back on that and my time in the Army as one of the highlights of my life.

As a corporal.

I miss the camaraderie to this day, 44 years later.

A few years after my discharge, I enrolled in a computer technical school in San Diego, and became a programmer for the next 20 years.

Anyway, my friend and I in year’s past compared our paths, and while we weren’t so crass as to compare income tax statements, I got the feeling that he earned more than me most years.

A lot more.

And this was working just by himself, having believed that the hassles of employees, with workman’s comp in California, wasn’t worth the trouble. He tried that route for awhile.

Which reminds me of another thing.

For awhile, I worked in my father’s office. He specialized in accounting for service stations and garages.

There were 2 stations that I remember.

One was on a busy intersection with 6 service bays, with many employees and always busy. The other had 1 service bay with one mechanic.

The small guy consistently made more money than the big guy.

It’s not the gross, but the net, and the big guy had a lot of expenses.

It’s a shame that in this country the trades are frowned upon. But millions of Americans are in them, and many make good money.

Such as car repair.

Lately I go to the dealership, look in the service bays, and most of the technicians are in their 20s and 30s. You’ll even see a young woman here and there turning a wrench.

Every 2 years, Daimler holds a competition world wide for the best team of technicians by country. I would say that around the world, 20,000 or so enter and through regional meets is whittled down to 7 man (or woman) teams for each country.

These teams then go to Germany and are given cars to fix (after the organizers deliberately “unfixed” them  😉

And a few years ago in Stuttgart, the USA won – (which, I have no recollection of the Germans’ reaction).

Two of those technicians on the 7 man team were from our local dealership. I remember others came from Texas and Manhattan, among other areas.

Anyway, our club was invited to hear a talk from one of those members.

He gave examples of the questions (all had to do with diagnosing given problems).

Not one of those questions had to do with the mechanical aspect of a car.

It was all about networks, and how each network relates to other networks and the car as a whole. It is just assumed that everyone knew about pistons and camshafts.  Some of the problems were diabolical.

Anyway, for those who have had Mercedes, BMWs or Volkswagens through the 1970s  they would have been  fixed mostly by middle aged Germans named Hans or Dieter (years ago one regaled me with stories of his time at the battle of Kursk!). These days, the newest ones are many times fixed by Americans in their early 20s to 30s.

It’s a different world.

I wonder these days how valuable a college education really is. If one is going to college I would recommend taking hard majors – like Electrical Engineering, Math, Accounting…

These millennials who took big student loans to take liberal arts – as someone said imagine graduation and having a debt like a house mortgage, before you even have a job.

What sparked this was a thoughtful letter to the editor in today’s WSJ…”

Virginia Foxx hits the right chord in asking Americans to “Stop Calling It ‘Vocational Training,’” (op-ed, Jan. 2). I suggest that programs to help people prepare for careers that don’t require four-year degrees should instead be called “opportunity training.”

My education consists of 12 years of Catholic school plus two years of community college, culminating with an associate’s degree in business. I’ve been very successful, unabashedly reaching the top 1% economically—and I’m not an anomaly.

While some of the friends and colleagues I associate with in the construction industry do have a full four-year college degree and are high earners, so too are painting contractors, plumbing contractors and electrical contractors, among others I know. In fact, many of them are earning substantially more than those in the so-called “professions.”

Life is full of opportunity, as I see it. It amazes me that so many who have graduated college can’t see the forest through the trees. They don’t recognize that a bachelor’s degree in humanities, music or self-esteem proves very often to be a dead-end street.

[I withheld the name]

Oakland, Calif.

I would have done some things differently but what I can’t say…




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