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In praise of hands-on work

Guest Blogger

Hands-on work. It has a nice, nostalgic ring but as Jessica DuLong has found it has an important immediacy to America’s future. While hard, sweaty labor is often perceived as of secondary value in our increasingly virtual world, DuLong says America suffers when its production and manufacturing strengths decline. And she has the blisters and greasy gloves to argue her point. After getting laid off from her dot-com job, she wound up with a job in the engine room of an antique fireboat. In "My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America -- A Personal and Historical Journey," recently released by Free Press, this mechanic’s daughter and Stanford graduate describes her discovery of the changing nature of work in America.

By Jessica DuLong

Labor Day offers not only the customary beach and barbecue affair but a chance to take stock of our work -- what it means to us, and how it contributes to society as a whole. As more than 14.6 million Americans struggle with joblessness and underemployment, such a reflection carries with it a special poignancy.

But rather than wallow in the country’s economic misfortune, we, as a nation, must recognize this as a hard lesson learned, and use it to reshape how we think about work.

Nearly a decade ago, following my own layoff, I seized upon an opportunity that transformed my life -- and my understanding of the meaning of work in America. I was still employed as a dot-commer the day I stepped aboard a retired New York City fireboat for a volunteer work-party and wound up cutting out heating pipes with a power saw.

First the pipes were there; then they were gone. The resulting blisters inside my borrowed gloves made me smile. After so many long hours building Web sites, I reveled in the notion that my own hands had accomplished this task. The work was so tangible, so visceral, so real.

Not long after, my dot-com company imploded. That layoff opened the door to a marine-engineering apprenticeship and now, nine years later, I serve as Fireboat John. J. Harvey’s chief engineer.

Learning how to make and fix things, and discovering the history of hands-on work in the United States has opened my eyes to the dangers of an increasingly more virtual, screen-focused society that devalues physical labor. The current economic crisis presses the point, laying bare the fact that America’s soul does not exist solely on Wall Street but also in the tradition of innovation, and in the muscle and sweat that built the nation.

As this recession reveals, a sustainable economy depends on a balance between production and service. But achieving that won’t be easy unless we’re able to rekindle respect for hands-on work.

First, we need to dispel the myth that blue-collar work requires all brawn and no brain. As a marine engineer working with 1931 (read: physically demanding) technology, I gain satisfaction not only from taxing my muscles, but also from solving complex diagnostic problems that challenge my mind as much, if not more than, any job I’ve ever had.

Another myth to be debunked about hands-on work is that all the jobs have moved offshore. In reality, many meaningful, highly skilled, well-paid positions in the trades and in manufacturing continue to go unfilled in this country, and still more are returning due to a recent wave of “on-shoring.”

Fact is, hands-on and blue-collar jobs aren’t only careers of the past, but also the future.

When Labor Day was founded in 1882, the goal was to celebrate those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

This year, let’s honor the important, though often invisible, contributions made by people who labor at construction sites, in shops and shipyards, and in vocational school classrooms and factories. These workers may well hold the solution to the recession -- and a sustainable economic future -- in their hands.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  September 3, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: the meaning of work; american manufacturing and labor;  
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