Time to get your hands dirty

At a hotel near Buckingham Palace, over a £5 cup of tea, I’m scribbling in my notebook every utterance of one of the most influential thinkers of our time — who happens to be a, er, motorbike mechanic.

But Matthew Crawford is no ordinary grease monkey. In GQ magazine, Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, says Crawford’s book has become a must-read among the political class: “Nudge is no longer the hottest book in political circles. Policy wonks now eagerly discuss The Case for Working with Your Hands.”

Michael Gove, the education secretary, and David Willetts, the universities minister, are among the book’s biggest fans. Lords Baker and Sainsbury, Tory and Labour grandees of education policy respectively, have invited Crawford to London to address a conference packed with influential industrialists.

Crawford’s message is superficially upbeat — he wants to make the case that manual work offers a genuine opportunity for “human flourishing”. To do that with conviction, however, he argues first that white-collar work, in developed countries, is doomed. Why would anybody pay for a British architect or accountant, Crawford asks, when there are competent ones who charge less in China or India?

Manual work resists outsourcing for a simple reason: it is tied to a particular location. If you need a haircut in Manchester, a barber in Bangalore is no use to you. And if your lavatory is blocked in London, you don’t call a plumber in Taiwan.

The implications, for people who have invested vast sums, and many years, in the kind of education that secures white-collar work, could hardly be more depressing: if you want a job that is secure, you must throw over your desk, get out of your cubicle, and learn to use a tool.

The National Union of Students won’t like this, but Crawford believes that too many people go to university. Manual work isn’t only more secure than white-collar jobs, Crawford argues, it can also be more fulfilling — even intellectually. He backs up what he says with his own experience.

Crawford was brought up in California in a commune. Because of his small size, he was able to fit into confined spaces and learnt to help with electrical work. Later, he enjoyed helping out in a garage and as a teen he souped up a Volkswagen Beetle. But like many contemporaries he believed his future lay in knowledge work — labour that involves “thinking, or the appearance of thinking” — and he went to university.

At the University of California, he studied physics but put most of his energy into surfing.

Afterwards, he made money as an unqualified electrician. “I put ads on car windows in home improvement store car parks. I said I was ‘unlicensed but careful’.”

The response was great, because for many people his being unlicensed did not matter. “Electricians were in short supply, physics grads not so much.”

After doing another degree, in philosophy, he got a job writing abstracts of academic articles. “It seemed interesting because I could survey the whole field of human knowledge,” he says.

But he had to write 28 abstracts a day, and the only way to meet the quota was to stop thinking much about what he was doing. “So what we did was crap. But the irony was that I got that job with a master’s degree. Also, that I had previously made two times as much as an electrician.”

Later, with a PhD in political philosophy, he went on to get a job running a think tank in Washington, but this wasn’t genuine intellectual inquiry because he had to draw conclusions that would satisfy his oil-company paymasters. “I landed the job because I had a prestigious education in the liberal arts, yet the job itself felt illiberal: coming up with the best arguments money could buy. This wasn’t work befitting a free man, and the tie I wore started to feel like the mark of a slave.”

In the basement of his apartment block, he began to repair his 1975 Honda CB360. Soon he was fixing other people’s bikes too. Given an advance to write a book about Plutarch, he spent the cash on an air compressor. His life as a mechanic had begun.

The job tested him in ways he couldn’t have foreseen. His academic abstracts and think-tank papers had never been tested objectively. But with a motorbike, the only way to satisfy the customer was to identify a problem and fix it.

This objective test requires mechanics to improvise, says Crawford, and also to take responsibility for their work in a way that is no longer necessary, or even possible, for many professionals such as teachers or doctors, in an era of centrally imposed curricula and treatment routines.

It is important to emphasise that when Crawford praises manual work, he doesn’t mean mindless production-line jobs. He is talking about craft, but thinks that sounds twee, so prefers to use the word “trade”.

His message is timely. On prime-time terrestrial channels, Monty Don and Kirstie Allsopp have showcased crafts recently, while young trades people have competed on BBC3 in competitions for, among other things, plumber and hairdresser of the year.

Crawford welcomes this. “I get a lot of communication, and I think, ‘Wow, there is a whole movement.’ People say, ‘You are articulating something that I have never been able to say.’ Or they say they used to work in finance but don’t any more, or that they were never really interested in school work and only enjoyed working on cars.”

But encouraging large numbers of people to go into trades will be difficult, he cautions, now that we have a minimum wage. “Let’s say you are a young person and you want to be an electrician,” he explains. “You are willing to earn low wages because you know you’ll earn more later. And low wages help make employers willing to take someone on. It’s a virtuous circle. But currently the wages for apprentices are nearly the same as the wages for journeymen.”

But we have got used to a minimum wage. Anybody who tries to remove it will be vilified.

People sometimes ask Crawford if they can be his apprentice. “I think, ‘Oh my God, much as I like the idea, [training them] would be a huge amount of time, even if people are willing to work for free’.”

Hypocrisy? Hardly, because Crawford is no ordinary mechanic. Others, lacking the distraction of a book tour, might well invest time in trainees. But how committed is he really to the trades? Would he, for example, not wish his daughters to go to university?

“My girls are only two years old, and four. I’m still trying just to get them to eat their dinner, at this point.” He pauses, gives the question further thought. “There is a horrible conformity [among young people]. A rat race. Kids are told that everything hangs in the balance. They’re as anxious as their parents. It’s a little embarrassing. They can’t all be doctors or lawyers. Many who go to university are going to work in retail.”

So the student protests are misguided? “I don’t know about the situation here, but in the US people seem unable to imagine not jumping through any gate in front of them. I mean, trying to get into Cambridge! What is so radical about that? The same person who sits in a sociology course bored out of his mind — that same kid might have made a crack electrician.”

The Case for Working with Your Hands is published in paperback by Penguin on January 6 at £8.99.

1274 words. First published 2 January 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.