Reforming the Social Imagination

In the first entry of this series we articulated both what a helpful anthropology is and the importance of a social imagination. Despite its helpfulness, I don’t have any desire at this point to convince that it is the comprehensively right way of viewing humans. However, what is important to accept is this:
  1. Humans are not primarily animated by rational thought, but are animated by what they love.
  2. What they love is a particular vision of the good life.
  3. This vision (or imagination) of the good life is shaped by stories their told, the media they consume, and the practices that make up their life.

With this foundation in place, we can start addressing the problem of skilled workforce disparity. A Deloitte study points to baby boomer retirements and economic expansion as the cause for what it expects to be 2 million manufacturing jobs going unfilled. 80% of manufacturing executives report a willingness to “pay more than the market rates in workforce areas reeling under talent crisis. Yet, it also reports that 6 out of 10 positions go unfilled because of talent shortages. In a report from the Associated General Contractors of America, 82% of respondents reported that they expect it will become harder or remain difficult to recruit qualified workers in 2018. For those who have a stake in the construction industry, thinking about how to handle labor shortages is an important task.

There may be large-scale solutions that have to do with public policy, but that’s not what we’re going to tackle, here. Just as I don’t have the platform to effect large-scale solutions, my bet is that many construction firms don’t either. The suggestions here are meant to provoke action in the small ways we engage with the world around us. I don’t hope that this post can propose solutions for the national crisis, but I do hope they can provide some thoughts that can solve some of your employment crisis.

The Current Imagination

The core problem in recruiting young people to the construction industry is a lacking in young folks’ social imagination (I write this as a young folk with a lacking social imagination). It might be true that we need to have people explain and convince us that good and prosperous lives are possible within the construction industry, but more deeply, we need help shaping our imagination to include skilled employment. I want to illustrate this problem by looking at some of the media which I consumed while growing up.

  • Drake and Josh. (Dad was a weatherman)
  • Suite Life of Zack and Cody. (Mother was a singer)
  • Friends. (Monica is a cook, Ross a paleontologist, Chandler an IT procurements manager, Rachel an executive for a fashion company, Joey an actor, and Phoebe a masseuse0
  • The Office. At Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch, the emphasis is on the white-collar workers. The warehouse workers are occasionally present, and while the show shows the manager’s derision of the warehouse workers as ill-mannered, it doesn’t convey warehouse jobs as an appealing career.
  • New Girl. (Jess is a teacher, Winston is a police officer, Cece is a model before becoming an agent, Schmidt is a marketing associate, and Nick is a bartender—worth noting about Nick’s job is that his lack of ambition and ambivalence towards getting a “good” job is a repeated criticism from some of the other characters; he eventually makes it as a novelist).

Going a little more broadly into a few of the top TV shows of the last two decades.

  • ’98: Home Improvement. An exception to the point I am making, this show was centered around the trades and working with hands.
  • ’98: Frasier. The title character, Frasier, was both a therapist and radio host.
  • ’00: West Wing. Taking place in the White House, many of the characters were Ivy League graduates (I’ll note that it is in watching this show that I most often romanticize white-collar work and elite educational institutions).
  • ’09: Mad Men. The show depicts the hustle and bustle of an advertising agency in ‘60s New York.

This isn’t exhaustive. My point is that I didn’t grow up watching movies about successful plumbers or carpenters. Due to the shows I have watched, I can imagine (although it might not be a completely accurate depiction) of what it is like to be involved in politics, to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a salesman, or an actor, among other careers. However, the shows I watched did not give me the ability to vividly imagine life as a welder or a pipefitter.

Practicable Steps

There are three practices which seem important as ways of shaping the youth’s imagination of the good life to include skilled work.

Practice #1: The Journey Motif

One of the fundamental ways that people envision the good life is a life of growth. As I learned about developing a career, it always felt like a journey. That was how it was depicted. You first go to college, and then you get a job, learn to do that job well, climb a ladder, maybe shift ladders but keep climbing until you get to your last rung. This is a compelling vision because it includes opportunity to grow, increase, and expand. Humans are dynamic creatures, and we desire to get better. It invites youth to participate in a journey.

I write this post as someone who has already admitted to an inability to thoroughly imagine a skilled career. That includes the fact that I have difficulty imagining the growing nature of a skilled job. I can imagine in a generic and abstract sense that someone who works in the trades can get better at their craft as they mature and grow, but I would be hard pressed to imagine the way that this progress worked itself out over time. If you want young people to be compelled by a vision of the good life that includes a career such as plumbing, show them how this change looks.

This could mean telling stories (which is a key to practice #2) of people who started out doing basic tasks but grew to be expert craftsmen in their trade.

Showing is more important here than explaining. An explanation of how this growth and journey imagery exists within skilled employment is helpful, but important alongside of it is that young people are given examples of people who have been employed in such work for a long time and have grown through it. Which leads us to practice #2.

Practice #2: Give Us Employment Exemplars

In David Brooks’ The Road to Character, he uses “Moral Exemplars” as a tool for helping people become more virtuous. He could have spent nine chapters going through a series of virtues and giving ways of practicing them, but instead he spent the book discussing people’s lives and showing their virtue through their actions. Instead of trying to convince people that they should be courageous, he showed his readers what a courageous person does. This is the model we should adopt when we are trying to bring more young people into skilled trades.

It is worthwhile to explain that there are options for young people to make great wages in skilled trades and that they can have fulfilling careers which are journeys (see practice #1). But what we need more than explanations is examples of lives well lived. We need to meet and hear the stories of people who worked as a carpenter for forty years. We need to read about the life of a plumber.

Teachers, assign biographies about skilled tradespeople. Welders, mentor young people and show them what your life looks like. TV producers, make sitcoms about construction sites. Novelists, write stories about electricians. These things are being done, but keep doing them. If we are indeed loving creatures, not primarily thinking or believing creatures, then we need to have our imaginations of life shaped. We need people to show us the good life lived out as a tradesman. You might need to convince us still, but don’t forget that we need to see the joy of it lived out, not just the argument on paper.

Practice #3: Forming Practices

This may be the hardest practice to implement, but it also may be the most important. One of the key claims that this series has made is that as humans our loves are shaped not just by the way we think but by the things we do with our bodies. To that end, it is not enough to just talk about and show the goodness of skilled trades. What will actually convince younger people to join the trades is by inviting them to participate with their bodies. In the ’90s, there was a push for computer literacy (a good thing) which ultimately came at the cost of shop class (a bad thing). Over the last two and a half decades, our loves have been shaped by attending to screens and books.

One means of working against this problem appears to be the reintroduction of shop class. That’s a fine idea, but I don’t think it’s in the control of those who are seeking to reinvigorate the skilled trades.

However, there is nothing standing in the way of construction stakeholders (general contractors, construction firms, etc.) from getting into the education game. One method of shaping the loves of youth towards construction is eagerly seeking out young people to attend classes taught by tradesmen. Begin junior apprenticeship programs for young people. Perhaps they cannot go to the construction site because of liability issues, but you can teach them offsite and even include them in smaller projects.

When I was younger, I became a Junior Lifeguard at the YMCA. It was a volunteer position and I got to learn a few skills about water rescues, safety, and some first aid. I also worked the welcome table at the pool. The whole time I was watching the real lifeguards going about and doing their job. It slowly became clear what I would do as soon as I was sixteen: become a lifeguard. I wanted to be just like those older (young) guys. My loves were shaped by what I practiced. No one convinced me to be a lifeguard, but my imagination was shaped–the good life for a high-schooler/college student was to sit on the high chairs, watching over the water, ready to act.

Shape the desires of the youth. Invite them to build with you. Perhaps other industries don’t have to work so hard to bring youth into their spheres, but that is the challenge of the day.

In the first piece of this series, I hinted that skilled employment may enable human flourishing in ways that are categorically unavailable in knowledge employment. We’ll explore that next.

About Seth Reid

Seth is the Instructional Designer at Resolve. His job is to design courses and platforms that engage students with learning material that they can understand and effectively apply to their life and work. He's also the blogrunner here at Resolve. That mostly means that he picks the pictures for the posts. He is also an avid fan of chess and loves to study history. He is currently based in Jackson, Tennessee.

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