The trades—a viable first option

May 8, 2014
By: Josh Welton

Our schools oughta be giving kids the same opportunities and incentives to hone a cylinder or nail an overhead root pass as they do to find the value of x.

I was a pretty smart kid. Although I never really applied myself in school, I always got decent grades. And despite having a father and a grandfather who were (are) both extremely skilled craftsmen, I never even thought about shop class. I wasn’t into wrenching, building, fixing. At. All.

When the time came to go to college, I had scored high enough on the standardized tests to go pretty much anywhere I wanted. And, of course, going to college was never in doubt. That’s what you do. You graduate from high school; go to college; get a job doing something respectable and clean, while wearing a suit; make money; and live happily ever after.

My dad operated a metal shear for Steelcase for the better part of three decades. At the time when I graduated from high school, they had a program where the kids of employees could get temporary summer jobs in the plants as long as they were going to college in the fall. It was a cool deal: Kids could make some nice cash for the upcoming school year, and it was also supposed to show us how valuable that education would be. Without it, we might end up having to slave away in a factory for the next 30 years. And the common thought was, “Who in their right mind would want to do that?”

The thing was, I liked working in the factory. I liked hanging parts on a line. I liked sanding down steel cabinets. I liked driving hi-los, and I liked running a paint line. I liked it a lot more than I liked going to class, writing papers, deciphering algebra, and trying to stay on a teacher’s good side.

So my life ended up taking a different direction. After 2+ years I quit college and I found work in factories and construction. Then, while working a brief stint at Mopar, I took the skilled trades test. When I got into Chrysler’s apprenticeship program a couple of years later, my gramps joked, “Don’t you have to have some type of mechanical aptitude for that?” Hah, yeah. That was never supposed to be me.

But it ended up defining what and who I am, at least professionally. A skilled tradesman. A millwright. A mechanic. A welder.

If I couldn’t sit in a classroom, I sure wouldn’t be able to sit in a cubicle. And what’s wrong with that? The easy answer is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Then why is such a stigma attached to it? Why do career counselors look at you like you’ve got the plague if you question the idea of a four-year university? There’s nothing “lesser” to being a pipe welder than being a software engineer; it’s just a different field.

To excel as a skilled tradesman you need to be able to think critically and work with your hands. Our schools oughta be giving kids the same opportunities and incentives to hone a cylinder or nail an overhead root pass as they do to find the value of x.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking down on the folks that stay clean while working. For a society to run on all cylinders, I think it's best to have a skilled and diverse workforce. There's no shame in having exceptional mechanical aptitude and limited "book" smarts (or vice versa). Shop class has too often been viewed as the scarlet letter, and that's my beef. Trade school shouldn’t be looked at as a fallback, it should be a viable first option.

Josh at work.

Josh Welton

Josh Welton

Brown Dog Welding
Detroit, MI 48208
Phone: (586) 258-8255