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Today's Times features a front page piece by labor reporter Louis Uchitelle (author of the estimable The Disposable American on the shortage of experienced blue collar workers--like welders.  While MBA's, lawyers, and other knowlege workers struggle to hold their footing in this slippery economy, welders, it seems, are in high demand.  To illustrate this point, the Times relates the story of Keelan Prados--a welder with more than a decade of experience who nabbed a job at an oil refinery paying $22 an hour.  

 

As the economy tanks, blue collar romanticism blooms.  A new book:  "Shop Class as Soulcraft," penned by political philosopher Matthew Crawford, condemns "cubicle culture" and extolls the virtue of working with one's hands--to build something real.  Dilbert could not agree more...


But taking a closer look leads to questions.  Let's begin with Mr. Prados--who got his new job after finding himself unable to make a decent living running his own machine shop and welding business.  Controlling for inflation, that $22 an hour is far less than Prados' father might have made welding car parts for GM--and when demand for his sort of welding dries up, so will Prado's future--welders don't have a career track.

 

Mr. Crawford (who runs a modest motor cycle repair shop but whose day job is as a Fellow at the University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies ) extoll the virtures of hand work from the priviledged position of hobbiest.  His argument is profound, but it should be taken in context.  With union protections all but vanished, the life of real blue collar workers today has never been tougher--or more uncertain. 

     

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She is the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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