Sunday, April 18, 2010

Forget the PhD and become a mechanic

Overqualified and underworked? Then try working with your hands

Matthew Crawford, who has a PhD in political philosophy, gave up his job as executive director of a Washington think tank to start his own business as a mechanic of vintage motorcycles

What does a good job look like these days: smart suit and BlackBerry in the palm or overalls and dirt under the fingernails? The question isn’t as counterintuitive as it sounds. We’ve never been more qualified for white-collar work, but with a 44% increase in graduate unemployment in the UK, according to recent figures, it’s time to reconsider some long-held assumptions.

I started working as an electrician’s helper in America when I was nearly 14. What I learnt then gave me something to fall back on when I couldn’t get a job, despite having a degree, further down the line. And that position — highly educated but potentially unemployable — is one that’s increasingly common. Having a practical trade meant I could always earn money when my career plans weren’t in full flight. But it offered something more as well: regular moments of accomplishment. I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch: “And there was light!”

The imperative of the past 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the office cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. Now, as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

Further, the globalised economy has sprung a cruel surprise on many who invested in a university education. Some programmers and accountants and radiologists, for example, find their jobs outsourced to distant countries. Plumbers, electricians and mechanics do not.

The Princeton economist Alan Blinder foresees a massive disruption that has only just begun. He argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labour market is not the conventional one between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person. As Blinder puts it, “You can’t hammer a nail over the internet.” Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India.

Yet despite the fact they have become one of the few reliable paths to a secure living — and are now at the heart of building a greener economy — the trades suffer from low prestige. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience.

I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Virginia, which I started in 2002. I work on mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

After finishing a PhD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago 10 years ago, having already done a degree and an MA, I managed to stay on with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the university’s Committee on Social Thought. The academic job market was utterly bleak.

In a state of professional panic, I retreated to a makeshift basement workshop where I spent the winter tearing down an old Honda motorcycle and rebuilding it. The physicality of it was a balm.

Stumped by a starter motor that seemed fine in every way but wouldn’t work, I sought help from an independent mechanic named Fred Cousins. He checked the electrical resistance through the windings to confirm there was no short circuit or broken wire. He spun the shaft that ran through the centre of the motor, as I had. No problem: it spun freely. Then he hooked it up to a battery. It moved slightly but wouldn’t spin.

He grasped the shaft delicately and tried to wiggle it from side to side. “Too much free play,” he said. He suggested that the problem was with the bushing (a thick-walled sleeve of metal) that captured the end of the shaft in the end of the cylindrical motor housing. It was worn, so it wasn’t locating the shaft precisely enough. The shaft was free to move too much side to side (perhaps a couple of hundredths of an inch), causing the outer circumference of the rotor to bind on the inner circumference of the motor housing when a current was applied.

Fred scrounged around his shop for a Honda motor. He found one with the same bushing, then used a “blind hole bearing puller” to extract it, as well as the one in my motor. Then he gently tapped the new, or rather newer, one into place. The motor worked! Here was a scholar.

Over the next six months I spent a lot of time at Fred’s shop, learning, and put in only occasional appearances at the university. Then in the spring I landed a job as executive director of a policy organisation in Washington. This felt like a coup.

But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backwards, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. This was demoralising.

Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning. I had landed the job because I had a prestigious education in the liberal arts, but the job itself felt illiberal.

As I sat dejectedly in my office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image of liberality that I kept coming back to. Here was someone who really knew what he was doing, losing himself in work that was genuinely useful and had a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having fun.

After five months at the think tank, I’d saved enough money to go into business fixing bikes. The work is sometimes frustrating, but it is never irrational. And it frequently requires intellectual rigour — a sort that may not be obvious to an uninformed bystander, but which I have found to be more demanding than the kind you exercise in work that deals only in abstractions.

There is always, for example, a risk of introducing new complications when working on old motorcycles, and this enters the diagnostic logic.

Imagine you’re trying to work out why a bike won’t start. The fasteners holding the engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips-head, and they are almost always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch if each of eight screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Such impediments have to be taken into account. The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given symptom may have several possible causes, and these causes may be difficult to isolate. In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around for a while. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules.

For me, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than in the think tank. Put differently, mechanical work has forced me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition”, which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. To be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken.

This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because a good mechanic internalises the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. Why else does he experience such elation when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

More here

This story has many resonances for me -- not the least is that I had some involvement in fixing up old motorbikes in my youth myself and that my admirable brother has made it his life's work -- and has prospered doing so. I don't think he even did an apprenticeship, let alone go to university. He simply started playing around with small motors as a kid and has never stopped.

Another resonance is that I have twin stepdaughters, one of whom got a degree and one who went straight into the workforce. The latter is now very highly paid, the other not so much

A third resonance is that I have often employed tradesmen in connection with my business activities and I have always admired the creativity, ingenuity, insight and skills that they bring to their work. They are the salt of the earth and I treat them accordingly

Another very small resonance is that I was once a champion seller of diehead chasers, though I doubt that anybody reading this will know what they are. So not all my talents are academic -- JR

Edinburgh University’s Scottish bias may break race laws

THE admissions policy of a leading university might breach race relations laws because it favours Scottish applicants over those from England, according to one of the country’s most senior education lawyers.

Edinburgh University gives “additional weighting” to applicants for some courses depending on where they live, and favours those who come from the area around the Scottish capital.

In a formal legal opinion obtained by The Sunday Times, Oliver Hyams, a barrister at Devereux chambers in London, writes that the policy “might, depending on the facts, be directly discriminatory and therefore contrary to section 17 of the Race Relations Act 1976”. The opinion could open the way for candidates to take legal action if they believe they have been turned down because they are English, Welsh or Northern Irish.

Hyams, chairman of the Education Law Association, argues that Edinburgh’s criteria “put persons who are not of Scottish national origins at a particular disadvantage”.

The policy at Edinburgh, where 41% of the intake is English, was introduced in 2004 to give local applicants a greater chance of winning places.

In contrast with the Edinburgh admissions policy, Hyams believes Scottish universities are acting within the law by discriminating against English students in the level of fees charged.

Under Scottish law, British undergraduates from outside Scotland are charged £1,820 a year, while Scots and those from other European Union countries have fees paid by Holyrood. Although the British courts have ruled that the Race Relations Act applies to discrimination between the UK’s nations, these nations are not recognised by EU law.

Universities such as Birmingham, King’s College London and Glasgow run schemes that favour pupils from comprehensive schools in their region. However, schools in deprived areas are singled out, a policy that Hyams said could be justified. Edinburgh, by contrast, bases part of its decision purely on where an applicant lives. “I suspect that the area [favoured by Edinburgh] as a whole could not reasonably be called socially deprived,” writes Hyams.

Dennis Harding, former vice-principal and professor of archeology at Edinburgh, said: “I’d very much regret it if Edinburgh had a reputation for not accepting good students from English schools as I’d like to think of it as a top British university, not a parochial Scottish one.”

Edinburgh’s weighting applies to candidates for some humanities and social science courses from the area close to the university and in a second tier of regions including the rest of Scotland, Cumbria, Tyne and Wear and other parts of northern England.

Hyams believes a court could see Edinburgh’s inclusion of a few English regions as “a thinly disguised cloak for discrimination in favour of persons resident in Scotland”.

Edinburgh, ranked 15th in the Sunday Times University Guide, said the impact of the policy was only “minimal”, adding: “Without some way of acknowledging local applicants in selection, we would risk running some degree courses with barely any local, or Scottish, students on them.”

It said: “Previous consideration has given us no reason to think this approach falls foul of any anti-discriminatory legislation, but we will give further consideration to this question in the light of the comments made by Mr Hyams.”

The university’s policy has angered English head teachers. Richard Cairns, of Brighton college, East Sussex, said one of his pupils, Jo Saxby, had been rejected by Edinburgh without an interview despite being predicted to achieve three A*s and an A in his A-levels. He has been offered a place at Oxford.

Cairns, who this weekend is making a formal complaint about Edinburgh to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said the university was “pandering to nationalist sentiment”.

Andrew Halls, of King’s college school in Wimbledon, southwest London, called the university’s policy “perverse, xenophobic and anti-English”. He added that only six out of 42 of his pupils who applied there had been offered places, a far lower success rate than at Bristol, Durham or Imperial College London.

Halls said: “It just so happens that all the boys offered places have Scottish surnames or ones that are very obviously foreign and not English. I’m sure it’s a coincidence.”


Australia: Report on bungled school funding could punish the Labor Party in the forthcoming election

THE last time the Auditor-General released a report during a federal election campaign the results were explosive. With one week to go in the 2007 campaign the independent investigator found the Coalition government had used a controversial grants program to funnel millions of dollars into projects in marginal seats, against departmental advice.

This year it is the Labor government's turn to wonder when the Auditor-General will drop a potentially damaging report into its Building the Education Revolution. The $16.2 billion program was announced as part of the government's efforts to keep Australia from falling over a cliff into recession.

As well as helping to upgrade school facilities the project was designed to quickly inject cash into the building sector, with the idea of keeping jobs going at a time when the government was expecting unemployment to eclipse 8 per cent.

For the past six months reports of overspending on projects have been filtering out, as have principals' and parents' complaints about their lack of input into the projects.

The temptation is to see parallels between the building program and that other federal economic stimulus program – the home insulation program. But the home insulation program was actually administered by the federal government. The state bureaucracies are the ones managing the education building funds and projects.

The federal opposition is making the most of the link, saying the school program is yet another example of the government's inability to manage programs and taxpayers' money.

Once it realised the extent of the problems of the insulation program – both practical and political – the federal government axed it. Ministers are no longer visiting homeowners talking about the benefits of ceiling insulation. But not so the schools building program.

Julia Gillard visited at least one school construction site every day last week, hard hat and reflective safety vest on.

Gillard is not backing away from the program and continues to point out the benefits of spending money to improve educational facilities. She is also taking every opportunity to ask the opposition if it would guarantee the program's future.

Tony Abbott has indicated the opposition would axe it, although this is at odds with what his education spokesman Christopher Pyne has reportedly been telling school principals. Nevertheless the opposition is not letting this get in the way of its attacks on the program.

Last week Gillard commissioned her own investigation into the billions of dollars of spending. This is in addition to the Auditor-General's report, which was originally expected last week but has been delayed. There are now nine official state and federal examinations of the scheme.

Although it is likely the reports will conclude that only a relatively small number of the 24,000 projects were problematic, the opposition will still pounce on any evidence that the government is a poor economic manager.

That is why it is in the government's interest for all the reports to come out as soon as possible. The sooner they are released the further away from the election they are.


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