The last of my uncles died this week. In my parents’ generation he was considered a successful man, despite not having a college degree. At the age he “should” have been in college, the U.S. Army had need of his services in a far off place named Korea. After that “police action” was concluded he returned home and became a tool and die maker.
Tool and die making is a demanding occupation that pays well by most people’s standards. Not Dow-Jones-500-CEO-well — but good enough that smart, hard-working youngsters of both genders still pursue the trade today. Growing up in Milwaukee, it was a respected position on a par with many white collar jobs.
As the years pass I have noticed a change in attitude towards the “skilled trades.” While there were always teachers who looked down on kids in “manual training” classes, most people had relatives or friends who worked in manufacturing and this tempered any elitist feelings they might have towards those who showered after work instead of beforehand.
I recall that — at a pre-school program for my now-28-year-old daughter — I was shocked to see how much things had changed. Two very junior attorneys and I were introduced to another young father. This man happened to be a journeyman tool and die maker at a client company of the other men’s law firm. They were rather incredulous over how much money the average tool and die maker had in the pension plan they were reviewing. How could a workman be earning as much as a junior associate?
This seemed a rude breach of decorum to me. So I asked them if they had any idea of what tool and die work involved. No clue. They never visited the plant or even looked at the client’s project showcase. Neither knew how much training a journeyman received or the financial risk his employer incurred if the worker made a mistake — that a single tool might involve $10,000 in raw material.
Just to drive home the point, I asked if they were writing the pension plan from scratch. Of course not — they were marking up another plan and having a paralegal type it and proof read it. They did not seem amused when I wondered if society needed good tools or more plagiarism to build a better world.
My uncle laughed when I told him that story a year or two later. “I guess all those dinner table arguments weren’t wasted after all” he concluded.
RIP, Uncle Dick. The world benefited from guys like you.