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Technical Training Matt Crawford


One of the few people in the world to have researched the value of a tradesperson reckons people who can build or fix things have less chance of being replaced by robots or software.

Matthew B Crawford visited Wellington last month to give a presentation to the Industry Training Federation annual conference. He also spoke to Radiator.

Matt is an American philosopher, a motorbike mechanic and a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia in Richmond.

He is best known for his New York Times chart-topping book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the Value of Work. The book takes a close look at the economics and psychological aspects of skilled labour and people’s perceptions of those who work in the trades.


“For a long time, especially in English-speaking countries, just about every kid has been pressured to go to university and into an office. But there are many who are plenty smart who’d rather build or fix things. Schools need to reassess how they are preparing kids for the future. The higher education bubble is starting to burst - it’s expensive, students come out with a lot of debt and have trouble finding a job.”

He says schools put too much emphasis on preparing students for an imagined future where they’ll have to change careers and retrain for jobs many times in their lifetime.

“Plumbers don’t have to do that and never will.” He says schools should go back to offering plenty of ‘technical’ training options for pupils.

“School seems to be particularly inhospitable to boys. Psychiatric drugs are commonly used to medicate boys into sitting still. Sitting with a book or screen is not the most natural way to learn.” He says hands-on work could be of real benefit to these students.

“We are creatures who evolved with bodies and think with our hands. There’s an intimate connection between brain and hands.”


He says many people in white collar jobs do the same thing every day, rely on procedure, and don’t get to do much improvisation or problem solving.

As a motorbike mechanic, he says there’s strong intellectual challenge, particularly in diagnosis.

“What scenario could account for the symptoms? Like a doctor, we rely on a mental library of sight, smell and feel.

Our final judgement is following hunches based on experiences.”

He says it was mechanics who developed many of the advances in scientific understanding.

“The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature.” Scientists of the day were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end.

In an article for New Atlantis, Matt wrote: “The physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers, and auto mechanics vary too much for them to be executed by idiots; they require circumspection and adaptability. One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine. The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction, but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life. This is the stoic ideal.”


His advice to young people is to go to university if they want to, but in the holidays, learn a manual trade. “You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems.”