I’ve always felt a bit conflicted between my blue- and white-collar worlds. But my work both on the boats and on the book have taught me that not only do I need both worlds, our country does too. And the stakes today—as doubts loom about the dollar’s future value and tempers rise about record-high banker bonuses—seem higher than ever.
Misconceptions between white- and blue-collar workers abound. I was raised by a car-mechanic dad who referred to people working in offices as “paper pushers” who, at the end of their day, didn’t really produce anything. Then I went away to a fancy-pants private school and was immersed in an upper-crust universe where people who worked with their hands were considered not only less intelligent but lesser people.
After stints as a cook and a preschool teacher, I went on to graduate from Stanford University with a degree in psychology, and headed down a white-collar path. I took a job making spreadsheets at an insurance brokerage before jumping headfirst, in the late nineties, into the zeitgeist of the age, helping to launch a couple of dot-com start-ups.
In early 2001, when I finally ditched my dot-com life for the diesel engines of fireboat John J. Harvey, I found a taste of home I hadn’t realized I was missing. The more time I spent toiling in the engine room, running the boat’s finely crafted machinery, the more I wondered what America is losing in our shift away from hands-on work.
September Eleventh: The Earth Shifts on its Axis
These questions crystallized in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, when the FDNY called the fireboat back into service, and we, the boat’s civilian crew, pumped water to fight blazes at Ground Zero. As blue-collar workers clambered on the pile, I was struck by the dignity and importance of physical labor.
I witnessed, for the first time, the fireboat performing the service for which she’d been built. The boat had been one step away from getting chopped up for scrap. And instead, here she was working alongside the active-duty FDNY Marine Division boats, pumping Hudson River water, the only water available for days after the towers collapsed, to firefighters on land.
The reason fireboat John J. Harvey was still able to pump water after nearly seven decades of service was because she had been built in 1931, in an age when fine craftsmanship was the guiding principle in manufacturing. That’s a piece of America’s heritage I think we need to get back to.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the dichotomy between hands-on and hands-off work played out in stark relief. As blue-collar tradespeople swarmed over the pile, the earth seemed to have shifted on its axis. Suddenly an Ivy League education seemed far less useful than knowing how to use a cutting torch. My respect for the building blocks of the physical world was rekindled and I immersed myself in an informal, but very real apprenticeship on fireboat Harvey.
United States: Manufacturer to the World
Since then I’ve learned a lot about industrial history—particularly along the Hudson River, a birthplace of American industry—and how our country came to preeminence, becoming manufacturer to the world. Through researching the history and reporting stories of present-day pioneers, oddballs and obsessives making their lives and livings on today’s Hudson, I’ve come to realize the danger implicit in a hierarchy of work that debases craftsmanship, manufacturing, and physical labor.
Long before we suffered the dangerous delusion that a solely “knowledge”- or service-based economy is a sustainable model, we respected hands-on labor as “real” work, valuing it as integral to the fabric of American society. Making things was, and still is the lifeblood of our national security. But somehow we seem to have lost track of its importance.
American Skills Must Be Cumulative
I’m not saying that we should go back to the old ways of environmentally irresponsible manufacturing. But industry and environmentalism are not mutually exclusive. Instead, American skills should be cumulative. We need to integrate our high-tech knowledge with our skills for making things, and mastering green manufacturing techniques and technologies presents a huge window of opportunity. Making things is crucial for the United States to be the strong, productive, self-sufficient nation we need to be.
To achieve a better-balanced economy, we need to find ways to foster mutual respect between people who do hands-on and hands-off work.
Lately I’ve been brainstorming ways to take advantage of my position, bridging blue-and white-collar worlds, to invite people from a diversity of occupations to share their on-the-job experiences and to discuss the meaning and value of the work they do.
Have ideas for how to do this? I’d love to hear them… Here’s what a few folks offered on my Facebook page:
I’d suggest first finding people who already recognize the issue and its importance, particularly folk who successfully live in both worlds.
In particular, you might want to contact Jesse G. James of West Coast Choppers/Monster Garage. He advocates for the value of dirty hands work.
TALK TO ME. This is something NY libraries should be able to do!!!
How about engaging an organization that, by its membership, already has the class mix you seek (e.g. churches, sports leagues, school parent groups) then use food and drink to bring them together for a discussion that starts from an issue they already care about?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions… Please leave a comment.