Where Have All the Craftsmen Gone?

Posted on December 28, 2012. Filed under: Work Issues | Tags: , , , |

craftsmanMy husband and I used to have an inside joke: We were going to have 3 children: an electrician, a plumber, and a carpenter (all with business sense!). (As it turns out, we only have one child, a daughter, so we are letting her choose!)

The reason for our joke is that once we became homeowners, like so many others, we quickly discovered just how hard it is to find people who are good at their trades and can handle their businesses well. As a result, we have had to become much more versed in the trades than we really wanted to be. (We’re the type who would rather pay to see it done well [and right], so that we could devote our time to becoming better at our own respective trades.)

In the corporate tech world that our business runs in, we see a similar issue. Companies are all about finding “good talent,” so much so that they say there is a “war for talent.”

And everyone keeps asking, “where is all the talent?”

As an owner of two small businesses, much like hiring a tradesman to work on my home, I can say that finding this talent is tough and seems to be only getting tougher.


In a recent post, Not a Leader? Then Be a Multiplier, I talked about the obsession corporate America seems to have with everyone becoming a “leader,” and I mentioned that some people are more in love with the idea of developing a craft than they are with training/managing people. Unfortunately, though, in this quest to create an environment full of leaders, what often gets lost are the craftsmen (I’m sorry, but “crafts persons” just does not sound right; you can understand that I am talking inclusively when I say “craftsmen,” right?), people who are dedicated to building a specific skill set and to doing it better than your average person does. Companies say they want more innovation, but then they spend all their time/resources on developing more and more management professionals, not on craftsmen.

Colleges aren’t much help either. Back when I came out of high school, so many of my generation (the 30-heading-into-and maybe-already-into-40 somethings) dutifully marched off to collegiate institutions because, hey, a bachelor’s degree was your ticket to career success. But it left an interesting hole in the idea of developing a craft, not just in the trades, like electricians, plumbers, and carpenters, but in other fields as well. The reason is because the college educations we were receiving were not geared toward preparing us for apprenticeships but more concerned with how well rounded we became. I mean, “diversity” and “well-roundedness” were the buzzwords of our hour. I can remember spending countless college hours studying things that would have virtually nothing to do with my future profession (and I am one of the minority who actually “uses” my major for a living).

Is this all bad? I suppose not. There is an argument for overcoming ignorance, something we all pay for.

But there has to be a line between the quest for well-roundedness and receiving a useful education.

For I certainly became well rounded, so well rounded, in fact, that I wasn’t really prepared for anything specific.

It’s true that sometimes we have to try out a few things first, but it’s more true that the reality is that most of us graduate high school and go to college having very little sense of who we are and what interests we have. So our colleges then spend the next four or more years helping us figure that out by giving us more and more options to “discover” ourselves. In fact, the options are so endless and the “necessity” to choose something so low that we pretty much spend that time just figuring out what we DON’T want to do. (Hey, isn’t necessity the mother of all…invention? If so, why do we spend so much time making sure our kids never know what necessity feels like? But I digress….) So by the time we receive that bachelor’s degree, we realize we’re still not qualified for much. Thus, we go back for another two or three years, this time maybe honing in a little more (and getting in to more debt)…all the while still not really developing a craft, just the theoretical idea of one.

Before we know it, we’re 25 (and probably still living at home), and we’re just drifting, really. And although we may have the aptitude for a particular field, we don’t become “good talent” just because we show up and are interested (and have the paper degrees to prove it). Becoming a craftsman takes time, talent, and dedication. It doesn’t mean you have all the answers, certainly right from the start, but it does mean that you start somewhere and you keep honing in on where your speciality in that area lies. Most importantly, it turns you into a contributor, someone who has a special expertise to offer that not everyone has (in other words, you are no longer a dime a dozen).

I feel badly for my generation who is now reaching middle age and has had to backtrack and scramble to carve out a craft having lost out when we were in our 20s and free from other life cares and obligations. I feel more badly for the next generation who has been told to be more worried about work-life balance and about whether companies offer the most progressive benefits packages than about becoming true specialists. As you can see, they are not fitting the bill in the “war for talent.”

It’s time we get back to what it means to be a “master craftsman” in whatever field we practice and to valuing talent for what it is…talent!

Let’s face it. No one ever wins an award for being well rounded. 🙂

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2 Responses to “Where Have All the Craftsmen Gone?”

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These are interesting points. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to not aspire to be a leader or become one. For many people, the reality is that they will never be given the opportunity to be in that role even if they wanted it.

Thanks for commenting, K. It’s an odd thing to think that all people should aspire to the same characteristics, but we often like to define “success” in a specific way.

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