August 22, 2007

A little less accountancy and a little more carpentry is what we all need

Posted in Ireland · 45 comments ·

This week thousands of Irish teenagers will be accepting university places. For most, this will open an exciting phase in their lives when they will make life-long friends, learn a bit, have a laugh and begin the process of growing up. Government policy aims to send 80pc of our school leavers to some form of university or other. So this is an experience that more and more Irish school leavers will enjoy in the years ahead.

Presumably, one of the by-products of education should be that the student comes out the far side a more independent person who can think for herself and who will have more control over her own destiny by virtue of the fact that the extra education makes her free to think, take risks and experiment.

What are we educating all these students for? This might seem like a silly question when education is inherently beneficial, yet anyone who visits one of the many large companies in the country — corporations that typically employ these graduates — cannot fail to ask what is the point in creating a white-collar workforce, particularly if this workforce is no more autonomous than the one it replaced. There is a worrying trend in corporate Ireland which might be termed the progressive debasement of white-collar work.

We are seeing this all over the western world where so-called knowledge workers are little more than commodities, not unlike the enslaved blue-collar factory workers they were supposed to replace. Thousands of our graduates leave university, many qualified to do nothing, and they find themselves in a corporate cul de sac. Rather than being independent, they are trapped, funnelled into institutions that immediately close off rather than expand their options.

If you spend time in any large corporation the first thing you’ll notice are the desperate efforts the educated worker makes to be different. As you walk past rows and rows of identical “workstations” the first giveaway is the screensaver. These hyper-educated workers tailor their little space to send out a clear signal that behind the conformity of the corporate man, there’s an exciting, irrepressible individual trying to get out.

The desk becomes a shrine to extreme sports. The screen-saver of the internal audit accountant will show him snowboarding in Chamonix, bodysurfing off Tarifa or paragliding in the Peruvian Andes. That’s me, the bloke with the ice pick, half way up the North Face.

The desk will be festooned with personal paraphernalia: photos of children, wives and mates at a stag night dressed as Elvis. And, of course, the obligatory Homer Simpson quotation somewhere on the side of the PC screen. All this signals “My real life is somewhere else. I’m only here for the cash and, in three years I’ll be running a surf school in Sligo or playing the Electric Picnic.”

The degradation of white-collar work is a serious issue because in many cases, the more educated graduates become, the more banal their work is. The more degrees they have, the more abstract and disengaged their jobs can be.

The white-collar worker becomes part of a system, a cog in the machine and less and less autonomous. They are turning into the blue collar workers of the past. Yes they might have clean nails, but the knowledge economy is just as capable of industrialising and making routine the production of most apparently sophisticated stuff as the old filthy mine heads were.

For many young workers, the office is just a dishonest version of the factory-floor: same targets and the same conveyer belt of menial tasks. As most of the real decisions are taken by a tiny elite in any modern company, and managers divvy up what has to be done into easy-to-digest parcels, the graduate can find herself feeling remote, worthless and uninvolved.

Compare this existence to that of the self-employed cabinet maker for example. The cabinet maker’s shed is his inner sanctum. It is a labyrinth of lathes, cutters, sharp tools and noise. He turns wood. He is a craftsman. He makes useful stuff for the house, shelves, stools and benches. This is an immensely satisfying process. In contrast to the member of the corporation who doesn’t know where he fits, the cabinet maker controls the process from start to finish.

He visualises the end product and marshals the process, overseeing every detail from beginning to end. Even before he starts, he spends hours on end thinking of what type of wood he will buy. What has the best give, yet is the most robust? What absorbs most varnish, yet doesn’t lose its colour? Which wood retains its smell, which is odourless? Which wood splinters, chips and cracks? Think about what we are building — for example a child’s desk. How high should it be, how wide?

Craftsmen have autonomy, pride and self-esteem. There is immediate worth and intrinsic value in the work. He has earned his keep in a tangible, non-negotiable way. He doesn’t need to boast, play politics or sneak behind people’s back. The cabinet-maker knows he is in control.

As we witness the CAO scramble this year, we should ask what are we educating all these graduates for. In the years ahead, it is the white-collar sector that will become debased. It is becoming commoditised and it will be outsourced. In contrast, the old trades — where the craft, knowledge and experience are key — will be the ones who will be able to command their own price.

A little less accountancy and a little more carpentry would do us all a power of good.

  1. Off course , the other alternative to becoming a corporate drone is to be independent but working for corporates (as a supplier, rather than an employee).

    It does mean that everybody needs to develop themselves as a ‘mini-brand’ – to copy to a lessor extent what you’ve done. Maybe the headline should be ‘a little bit less accountancy and a more mini-McWilliams’


  2. Ciarán Mc

    The point about the corporate drones is a fair one. In many ways we have seen a sort of banalisation of 3rd level – where every man and his dog have a degree and high expectations of an exciting career, when in truth they are in for a 40 year stint of boredom mixed with frustration.

    However, I don’t buy the argument about the tradesman: I’d bet the vast bulk of plumbers are not self employed, but employees. I know several plumbers who own their business. One of them employees 80 people. Those 80 are plumbers – but they have no more control over the business than the white collar drone. Nor no say in what job they do next.

    It’s true that small firms are huge employers overall. But they are still firms, and often have one or two owners with several other ‘drones’. Whether a local bakery or a plumbing outfit, the bulk of the skilled work is done by employees, not owners.

    The firm is still the most efficient way of organising economic activity – and as long as that’s the case, there will be far more openings for drones than owners.

    That is not to say that someone who wants to bear the risk with their own capital cannot be their own boss. But there is obviously an equilibrium whereby the level of risk deters most potential entrants.

    The other point is that perhaps the choice of trade was a poor one. David, few have done more to highlight the inflated housing market than yourself. Already the drop in output in that sector is significant. Surely this will hit the plumber very hard.

    We hear a lot of talk about public projects in the NDP taking up the slack – that’s fine for the likes of CRH, but a plumber is no use when you want to build a bridge or an interchange.

  3. rayc

    “My real life is somewhere else. I’m only here for the cash and, in three years I’ll be running a surf school in Sligo or playing the Electric Picnic.”

    Love it :)

  4. Aesop

    Strange for somebody who has been forecasting the demise of the property boom in Ireland you are now advocating participation in the very apocalyptic bust you have been heralding. Instead we should be encouraging the currently mythical “Knowledge Economy” to make us more resilient to an economic downturn. It’s ironic that on the front of todays independent there are two articles that point to Ireland’s failure to diversify. The first talks of large numbers of students turning to the trades because of the large amounts of money to be made. It gleefully talks of students with 500+ points becoming plumbers. The second talks of Ennis which has utterly failed to become the “Information town” it was once touted to be with the lowest broadband penetration in the country. If anyone, yourself included David, thinks this is a positive (or sustainable) development they are very soon to be proved wrong!

  5. mark

    how very true, you only ya only have to go to a boozer on baggot street or down the IFSC ( canary dwarf ) on a friday, see the drones in their cheap dunnes stores suits thinking they are hotshot businessmen, reality is they are factory workers in suits……..

  6. I’ve always wondered what those besuited drones do all day. I’m a web developer; I get all the satisfaction of creating useful things for other people, I can wear what I want AND I have clean fingernails :-)

  7. James

    This sounds very similar to the Yeats poem – albeit then a fisherman now a cabinet maker.

    Wouldn’t a modern cabinet maker need to learn the Chinese language and move to Shenzhen or whatever Chinese city that most cabinets in Irish homes are now made.

    And without office workers surfing the web who would read blogs and other light journalistic output.

  8. Wessel

    “And without office workers surfing the web who would read blogs and other light journalistic output.”

    Too true.

    There is however a serious matter re the education “output” in Ireland. A few months ago the chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland urged a serious rethink on the Irish system, in particular, the extent to which knowledge transfer actually leads to innovation. In short, we severely lack people who come out of our education system who can start-up product/service innovation. For too long we have convinced others to set up shop (IDA take a bow) while our system will provide the drones (white or blue collar).

  9. Tracy

    This article sums up in many ways why the current education system is flawed. We need to ask ourselves exactly what education is for. What is its aim?
    Well, among people who have asked this question, and answered it, there is a small but significant revolution taking place – appx 2000 children in Ireland are being home-schooled (or rather, home-educated because it has nothing in common with school) at this moment.
    Every home-educating family has its own motivation, of course, but a recurring theme is the desire to provide an education which encourages innovation not memorisaton, creativity not rote-learning, and independence not conformity.

  10. paul

    Very funny article. I’m getting my attic converted and it inspired me to ask the guys could I help. They told me my hands were better suited to washing dishes with fairy liquid.

    I have a number of problems with 3rd level quals
    - the view drilled into us – no degree = no success
    - individuals believe that a degree guarantee success and endless riches.
    - when individuals complete a degree they cannot see any careers outside of the qualification – it acts like a streetlight – degree holders only look for careers where the light shines – and normally this is where they have been misadvised to study.

    This is from a degree holder.

  11. Restless

    Hi All

    I come from PhD land, those idiots sucked in by the apparent kudos of being a Dr, except we are a fopish herd of vocational Dr’s ie we don’t get paid properly. Post Docs is this country pay just above the minimum wage, there are no pensions or benefits, yes you can work in industry (in America) but there are few opportunities in this country. My advice is simple, don’t invest your life capital in anything that the government recommends, run far away (very far) from anything those idiots suggest. I have solved my situation by moving away from ‘science’ and into industry but not research; the PhD helped but is not worth loosing 4 yrs of your youth (unless you are rich and enjoy witless conversations). There is no future for ‘education’ as it exists now, innovation not imitation is the key

  12. Harold

    I completely agree with Restless in what he said. The only reason for pursuing a post-graduate education is purely for the appreciation of knowledge, not for making a career. I spent 4 years earning my BSc in Physics and another 2 years earning my MSc in Medical Physics. When I graduated, there was pretty much only one company that could have provided me work relevant to my studies, they weren’t hiring though, so I ended up becoming a store manager at Aldi. Don’t get me wrong, I love the job; it’s challenging in it’s own right. I would dearly have loved to have pursued a career in my degree subject though.

  13. Glen Quinn

    Hi Harold,

    “I spent 4 years earning my BSc in Physics and another 2 years earning my MSc in Medical Physics. I ended up becoming a store manager at Aldi” – Classic, I couldn’t stop laughing.

  14. I wonder if David has read Harry Braverman’s book. –
    Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century.

  15. Restless

    definition of sensitive Glen….strongly empathetic

  16. Drone Girl

    Enjoyed this piece, makes so much sense. Just ask any lawyer.

    We’ve all been conned.

    Ironic that it was published in the Indo (hope they’re paying you well to grace the pages of that rag David), which is leading the way in outsourcing production to sweatshops.

  17. fred

    Jesus David it’s a fine article but don’t demean climbing the North Face. There are plenty of serious climbers who haven’t been able to do the North face for a number of reasons. I have a friend who camped beneath the North face for a week waiting for a break to climb the North Face of the Eiger. He is an exceptional climber and still hasn’t got a break.



  18. [...] are well below their level.  David McWilliams refers to this in his article published in the Irish Independent.  He notes that many of the corporate employment opportunities arising from the high point courses [...]

  19. Paul F

    The reality is people like plumbers electricians or whatever tradesmen go around in rough gear. they work hard and play hard. they see progress in there work. somebody gets running water or somebody has power to light their house. the guys in the suits like me burst our ass in school. ok college was fun and all but I like to think tht I have achieved skills, that I can make a difference. when you work for a big company as a graduate you get a bang. your confidence can be sometimes shattered because sometimes too much is expected too soon. you get paid rubbish cash maybe 24,000 euro to pay 480 rent a month. you canfeel all polished with your degree in your hip but its goin to be a while before you earn decent bread. meanwhile your plumber classmate has his house bought, his jeep and is a handyman around the buliding of his second house. he is only 24 years old. he was the guy that went on the beer when you were reading Peig till 12.00 during your leaving cert. there doesnt seem to be much justice in that but i hope it will come full circle for me and human capital such as a mental aptitude in recognised degree course will bring its rewards.

  20. Flano

    Just a quick point that seems to have been missed! With the continuing influx of foreign workers into Ireland the very group of people who will feel the impact the most (after general labourers) are these trades people such as plumbers, carpenters, plasterers etc. If you walk onto any site these days, a significant amount of the workers come from abroad. This will end the gravy train and big earnings that many trades people have been enjoying over the past couple of years. This will mean that Irish trades people may well find their wages spiralling downward as more foreign skilled workers continue to come here to work.

  21. Flano

    Just a quick point that seems to have been missed! With the continuing influx of foreign workers into Ireland the very group of people who will feel the impact the most (after general labourers) are these trades people such as plumbers, carpenters, plasterers etc. If you walk onto any site these days, a significant amount of the workers come from abroad. This will end the gravy train and big earnings that many trades people have been enjoying over the past couple of years. This will mean that Irish trades people may find their wages spiralling downward as more foreign skilled workers continue to come here.

  22. Aidan

    Great article David. I have a primary degree and two postgrad degrees (including a ‘silver bullet’ MBA). I am pretty sure that somebody without a degree could do my job as well if not better. The effort it took to do the Leaving Cert and then an engineering degree was far in excess of anything I have been confronted with at work. I earn good money but I have zero satisfaction with what I do, I am already focusing everything on making sure that my children don’t end up like me.
    My view is that a university education should be about expanding your intellectual horizons so the American collegiate model is the way to go. How can a 16 or 17 year old possibly know that they really want to be a lawyer or an electronic engineer? I remember CAO forms in the 1980s where people from Galway had UCG courses from 1 to 10 so they ended up in Arts if they did poorly and Medicine if they did well and in Engineering if they got points somewhere in between. Far better to have a broad education at primary degree level and when you have matured a bit you can decide to specialize at postgrad level.
    I don’t agree that a university education is devalued because most studies are just not vocational. A carpenter may well have a lot of money but how many intellectual tradesmen are there out there? They work with Poles but how many would be interested in learning about Polish culture? How many on night courses learning the Polish language?
    I have followed many night courses since I left university and the people on courses are generally the people who are already well educated – ‘ the more I learn the more I know I need to learn’. One should not devalue the pursuit of knowledge. In my small home town in the west of Ireland I come across many who are rich materially but they never read a book.

  23. Ciarán Mc

    Good point. I filled in my CAO form in Jan 1991. I was 17. I chose my preferred course and therefore career – engineering. No only did I know very little about what life as an engineer really entailed, but I didn’t come close to realising that my choice would one of the most significant I would take for the rest of my life. If I had had three extra years, or possibly even two, I would have made an entirely different choice. Regarding life as an engineer, I had no idea. I attended a small school which at the time had no practically no career guidance. But even if there had been such guidance, it is doubtful if I could have fully comprehended its significance at that age. And so I agree, our education system suffers from a fundamental structural flaw. I am confident too that the consequences are massive economically for sure and perhaps socially. Those who are in careers that are well chosen after mature reflection are going to prosper. Their productivity will be much higher. Their level of innovation will be higher, and so on. Socially too, this must have consequences. If people are more fulfilled (and probably richer!) there will be a knock on effect. I wonder if any sociologist has ever studied this.

  24. Tracy

    Ciaran Mc,

    I liked your post.

    I have to tell you though, that knowing what you want to do is not a function of age as much as it is of time and space to explore. I come back to my point about home-educating. It really does answer that question for sure. The home-educated teens are all about exploring and trying out different vocations, and they’re all very happy when it comes time to decide on college courses.
    The biggest sin about school, in my opinion, is the sheer waste of time. It steals those years from our youth, and they can never be got back. It’s the most inefficient way of sharing knowlege/education too – home-educated children are the proof of this, as they learn as much, or more, but in a fraction of the time, and hence have time to explore who they are and what they want to do.

    I know it’s too late for everybody posting there, but I want to draw this to your attention, because there IS an alternative for your children in time.

    I especially agree with your statement that “Those who are in careers that are well chosen after mature reflection are going to prosper.Their productivity will be much higher. Their level of innovation will be higher, and so on. Socially too, this must have consequences. If people are more fulfilled (and probably richer!) there will be a knock on effect.”


  25. Ciarán Mc

    It is amazing how much the human horizon is limited by the institutions we have built. Good intentions lie buried in the foundations of most, but the final walls provide barriers more than shelter. Then there is the group think or collective conscience which imposes further constraints. (As an example, take the industrial schools of the 50s – the church largely ran them, the state supported, and society, for the most part, was conditioned to think that they were a nesessary ill to deal with a more threatening evil).

    When I think back on many of the biggest decisions in my life, I feel now that there was always a huge burden of restraint which limited my choices, mostly unecessarily. Whether it be chosing a career, buying a house, or other.

    In that sense, our society is in real need of another “opening up”. We need a kind of human emancipation to liberate us from our self-imposed intellectual chains. (The German philosopher, Habermas, has written about this, but much of his writing is extremely obscure and I have never had the guts to take him on). This doesn’t mean tear down society in some form of revolution. Merely retrain people to think for themselves. And camaign for a more open minded approach. We hear so much about flexibility these days, but always in a very narrow economic sense. Real flexility would be truly liberating.

  26. [...] McWilliams has an interesting, and thought provoking article on the value of college degrees, and where they are leading people. I’ll keep my comments to myself, and just point to a post I made a few years back. Oh, and [...]

  27. Hi There,

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article, and having been part of the high flying robots and gone, it grabs me deeply. I also do agree with the conclusion that small is beautiful, you remain in control and can work according to life ambition rather than live to work.

    But it also struck me to hear on the radio of youngster looking forward to Uni as another few years of “god craic”. I am not advocating that education should be administered by the cane but I do not think it should be “good craic” either. I am also widely disconcerted to see my kids in primary school spending the whole day doing more colouring than spelling (colouring makes spelling fun allegedly), learn how to makes sound out of a blowing balloon (science made fun), being turned into seat-belt sheriff (Safety made fun)… The list is endless. Education is not essentially about having fun, broadening the mind is challenging and being so used to “having fun”, the resilience required for true education is going down the pan. Working at master lavel, I am equally surprised on how casual the vast majority of adults are. They do not want education, they want a piece of paper that will protect their back in the next redundancy round. So it seems that the current mindset is about entertainment rather than challenge the mind. And if broadening the mond was really that important, can someone tell me why philosophy id not more widely taught in secondary schools like it is in France?
    My final observation is that Uni used to be independent from government, religion and commerce. Ties and patronage existed but by far and large, they were seen as beacon of knowledge, albeit within the constraints of their time. Their aim however was to educate citizens. Today, uni are businesses churning graduates for the workplace. Humanism is a dead end but the latest market fad rules. Corps have a huge influence on what is being taught, what is being financed. Is it actually in thier interest to have a workforce that is educated? Not really, a properly educated workforce is unlikely to be docile and follow blindly the excess of modern corps. It is in the interest of corps to have youngster moulded, channelled and brain washed as early as possible to be as malleable as possible. And this process of brain washing is softened up by glossy degrees and, allienating student debt and the illusion of being an expert in whatever field cut from reality. The sad combination creates student with sky high expectations that the workplace will also be a fun place, limited skills in terms of redirecting their ambitions and a lack of emotioanl maturity to cope adequally with the situation. Over 5 million people in Europe a year, downshift, i.e abandon glossy careers for simpler life. Apparently the number is rising fast. What are we doing to our youngster and ourselves?

  28. Sorry the above email is packed with spelling mistakes. I thought I would be able to review before being posted…

  29. Stephen

    Surely, the problem is on the other side of the fence: Very, very, few people wish to buy the possible outputs of a skilled ‘knowledge’ worker. We may think of ourselves as knowledge workers, but how many of us are ‘knowledge consumers’? The quality of our newspapers, radio, and TV reflects, to some extent, that which we wish to read, listen to, and watch. Mashed potatoes. A clue for the insubstantial nature of our new world is possibly that a skilled carpenter takes 20 years, or more, to learn his trade. He becomes ‘at one’, as it were, with all the components of his craft. Whereas a contenporary knowledge worker prides herself in her ability to ‘pick up’ the skills of her trade in almost no time at all.
    Mind you, it was ever thus. Most people just rode out their lives following horses, scaring crows, and slaughtering unwanted flora and fauna, with the highlight being a jolly, if back breaking, harvest.

  30. SpinstaSista

    “It is in the interest of corps to have youngster moulded, channelled and brain washed as early as possible to be as malleable as possible.”

    I agree with Natalie. I spent 4 years doing a business/tech degree by night but we learnt nothing useful except how to shaft our classmates in order to get the best grades possible. There was no “craic” as most of us were working full-time by day. There was no camaraderie among classmates, no going to the pub after lectures and no nights on the town after term ended. We had to work in teams on assignments and projects but this was a means to an end. Once the assignment or project was finished the teams disbanded and would literally pass each other in the street. Hostile competition, ie backstabbing and cheating, was covertly encouraged. I saw classmates marriages break up under the pressure of the degree and a few people came close to having nervous breakdowns.

    Some gluttons for punishment went on to do MBAs and Masters, the rest of us went back to the dreary jobs which we had originally hoped to escape. More did further courses in disciplines totally unrelated to their business/tech degree, having tried and failed to advance their careers. Fed up of books, I took up horseriding where I meet very sociable two-legged and four-legged individuals. However I don’t have a naff screensaver of myself hanging on to a horse for dear life!

    I spent a weeks hard fought annual leave painting and renovating my apartment which was much more rewarding than work. I’m off for a week’s horseriding. I often wonder how life had turned out if I had taken up a trade when I left school, but back in the 1980s tradespeople had to emigrate.

    When we started our evening degree IT and business graduates were in huge demand. When we finished our degrees four years later, our pieces of paper were of little use to us unless we decided to do further study. I hope that school leavers who start apprenticeships now can put them to use when they qualify. At least school leavers can get apprenticeships now, several tradespeople my age had to learn their craft abroad because apprenticeships were like gold dust in the 1980s and you needed family connections to get one.

    I was talking to a Dutch acquaintance over the weekend. He said that the Irish work the longest hours in Europe but it doesn’t seem to increase efficiency. In the Netherlands it is common to work a 38 hour week over 4 days, leaving 3 days of non-work time. According to him we have no work-life balance in Ireland.

    If we do not have a work-life balance it makes no difference whether we work in an office or a workshop. Just as there are office drones working long hours doing repetitive clerical tasks, there are workshop drones working long hours doing repetitive construction tasks. Those who own the means of production use scientific management principles to deskill work and ultimately pay workers less. It doesn’t matter if the work is knowledge or craft based, it can be deskilled regardless.

    A few weeks ago David said that small family run businesses are the way forward. A trade is an ideal family business, but how can small family businesses survive in the face of globalisation? Agriculture was once a major employer in Ireland with several families making a living from their farms. Not any more, globalisation has put paid to that. If globalisation can destroy agricultural smallholdings, it can also destroy small self-employed tradespeople.

  31. Helen

    “The quality of our newspapers, radio, and TV reflects, to some extent, that which we wish to read, listen to, and watch.”

    Couldn’t agree more Stephen. Mashed potatoes indeed. But it’s a chicken and egg situation. Who is driving the agenda? Who decides we want to read more about Victoria Beckham – the reader or the newspaper? I think the English tabloids – and their arrival here – have a lot to answer for in terms of dumbed down content with misogynistic overtones.

    Can we blame the plumbers who say they “get it for the sport”?

    Agree that the American system much better. We’re a nation of square pegs in round holes. Anyone read John Waters in the Irish Times yesterday, the Irish versus the Italians? Spot on.

  32. Peter

    #“I spent 4 years earning my BSc in Physics and another 2 years earning my MSc in Medical Physics. I ended up becoming a store manager at Aldi” – Classic, I couldn’t stop laughing.#

    Can’t see what’s to laugh at myself. That represents a waste of investment that does not bode well for the future of the economy here. You can extrapolate from that that we face a future as the ignorant peasants of the world while India and China out-pace us. Regardless of whether Harold is happy (maybe you should emigrate Harold?) as a supermarket manager or not stories like that plus news like this

    should have us very worried indeed. Oh no wait a minute I forgot – we’re going to go on getting ever richer by selling houses to one another.

  33. David McKenna and myself were founders and CEO’s of companies that eventually completed IPO’s on the London Stock Exchange and spent quite some time trying to convince investment bankers and other such white collar workers in both Canary Wharf, (London) and Canary Dwarf (IFSC Dublin) that we were well qualified as plumbers to build high growth companies. Both our respective stock exchange companies were not in the building industry. His in recruitment and mine in biopharmaceuticals – it’s a long story…. Not a university degree between us, though I was kindly granted a fellowship of the Ryan Academy after the fact for being outstanding in the field of whatever it was I did.

    There is no way in the world I could have done it without university degree and PhD graduates.

    It is interesting to note that the average entrepreneur starts a business around the age of 38. For those who have figured out that they got their career situation all wrong the first time round and are now beckoning for Sligo surf, then get out of your cubicles and go for it.

    If you want to assess whether it is worth the risk or not then ask yourself this one question.

    If you reach 79 years of age and look back at your life, would you regret not doing what you really wanted to do at 38, instead of settling for ensuring your kids get to make better choices than you. After all did you do exactly what your own father said you should do, because he thought it was best for you? I did become a plumber like him. Proud that I did, but I took what I learned as a plumber and moved on to the next level….

    And as for the earning capacity of a plumber vis-a-vis a PhD structural engineering graduate with an MBA? Who would you be more happy to pay 120 euro to for arriving at your door to fix the heating and turn on the hot water when the temperature is minus 5, it’s raining and you needed to have a shower to go to work in Canary Dwarf tomorrow morning?

    Best of luck to you all. No regrets. Life is too short.

  34. pmurtagh

    All excellent posts – I particularly liked Stephen’s one on Knowledge Workers with no Knowledge Consumers.

    The fact is that Ireland is a transhipment point. As a nation, we HAVE to export something and given the difficult logistics for getting here you are either very cheap and/or very clever to compete on the global stage. Our education got us to where we are today and make no mistake, our tradespeople depend on these exports but add precious little to them. We simply cannot do without well skilled folks with primary degrees and life long learning – the snag is how do we bring this knowledge base to maturity (and not have people dump their learning for lesser intellectual challenges for economic reasons). How come so many people who have made the educational sacrifices find they are working in dead end jobs.

    The reality is that there is little in the way of fundamental output from our economy. As a transhipment economy, we mostly add value for smallest cost – meaning we have little ownership of IPR. The average grad will be working for an international company and will not be able to mature to a high level of skill because you are in the periphery and not close to the core of the business.

    I work with Dutch, Germans, English etc. and the one thing that hits you is their huge domestic markets. Business Cores with their entourage of very senior management will always cluster in these bigger economies.

    Gerry Brandons note offers a way out. I’d like to add to his comment by saying, stop looking at MBAs and other distractions. If you want to develop, move to the core asap in your careers – emigrate asap and/or look for a few more Brandons and try and build the core here. We need that mature base of degree holders asap – therein lies your knowledge consumer…

  35. mishko

    I left uni and Ireland way back in 1970, with the image of Dustin Hoffman’s graduate
    firmly in my mind as a warning not to be chloroformed by the multinationals.

    But I also had what I consider to be the good fortune to leave with the wisdom of some great writers to some extent absorbed in my mind (thank you Skeff). They taught me to really think for myself and not follow the herd. As the lady who advocates home-learning says, this and a dose of innovation, mature decision-making and the like, may follow. I would not wholly agree that home-learning is suitable for the majority, just as the benefits may be acquired in other ways. I think it needs exceptional teachers and there aren’t enough to go round (yet).

    I’ve worked all over the world since and, in many of the places that I’ve been to, most people would have given an arm and a leg to get into a university.

    I think the problem in Ireland (as in other developed countries) may often have more to do with ennui than with any more serious problem. A guy in a Dunne’s store suit should thank his lucky stars he’s got a suit at all. If it worries him, then he should opt out mentally (emigration physically is no guarantee to solve his problems).

    He or she has to have a good game plan. How many of us are really born to be great innovative entrepreneurs? 5%? But we can all turn a hobby into a small satisfying business – and in Ireland as David suggested recently the agricultural/horticultural sector is ripe for innovation (even if we choose to import a few Poles or Latvians to do the digging!)

    OK, I’m not 79 yet, just 60, but I don’t think I’ll have any regrets about not doing what I really wanted to do. Why not? Because I realised that I really wanted to travel and there was a huge market out there for my language. So if you really can think for yourself and have had enough of Canary Dwarf, start looking for a shed for that surf school or prepare the land for a blueberry farm now.

  36. SpinstaSista

    Interesting point, mishko. Perhaps Ireland’s part-time farmers who had to seek employment in construction to make ends meet will make a fortune as blueberry farmers now that the construction work is drying up. A farmer up to his or her elbows in blueberries is a much more romantic image than that of a farmer up to his or her elbows in muck, don’t you think?

  37. David has sparked off a very important debate on occupational mismatch. He paints a very vivid picture of corporate drudgery, where expectations for exciting work are often unmet, and sometimes financial rewards also fall short of what people expect.

    This points to a problem that is fast being conceived of as “mismatch” in the economics literature i.e. students pursue a certain course of study for a number of years, then end up in a job where what they have studied is completely irrelevant to their occupation. I have thought about various angles on the problem, such as:

    - Can financial satisfaction compensate for labour market mismatch?
    - Is financial satisfaction less likely with labour market mismatch?
    - Is it possible to avoid labour market mismatch?
    - Do occupational preferences evolve over time?
    - Do we need a much better career guidance system?

    Of course, interpretation of what the comments made on this article mean is subjective, but I definitely see a theme of regret amongst those individuals who have not pursued their occupational preference, whether they knew what their preference was at the start of their occupational pursuits or not.

    The themes running throughout the comments have made me appreciate the importance of a research project that I have been planning – on evaluation of occupational preferences and decision-making, as nothing can be more frustrating than a lifetime’s regret.

    So if readers are keen for their children to make the occupational choices that make them happiest, they should take solace from the fact that somebody is at least beginning to research this problem in the Irish context.

  38. majormajor

    David, excellent article.

    I worked in Ireland for 6 years where I consulted to many of the major inbound investment corporates. I was staggered by the stifling of initiative that pervaded these environments. I was left with the impression of lambs being led to the slaughterhouse. It can only be a matter of time before this commoditised group of individuals’ lifelines are taken by a similar bunch somewhere else at a lesser price. This strikes me as an awful waste of talent for a country which prides itself on harnessing the knowledge economy. Outside of their space on the production line, what do these people actually know?

  39. John

    Very interesting to see the resentment and snobbery towards trades appearing on this topic. The graduates that I work with cannot get over themselves and their degrees. Ireland has produced a generation of “engineers ” that cant or wont change a plug , change a flat tyre etc.All trades, according to some ot the posts, read tabloids and are incapable of rational thought.
    Get a load of this in case you missed it ! “A carpenter may well have a lot of money but how many intellectual tradesmen are there out there”
    Question: How many intellectual degree holders are out there (as opposed to those who memorised facts to get a qualification only to churn out snobbery as above).

  40. Ruairi

    Obviously if more people become educated the value of being educated will be lessened, but I would still prefer to be bored and drone-like sitting at my desk in a nice warm office for 37.5 hours per week rather than bored and drone-like working down a cold dark mine for 80 hours a week. A small percentage of people will always innovate and lead and the vast majority will always follow like sheep. We might as well be educated sheep.

    Another small point is that most tradesmen have a pretty decent education also in the form of an apprenticeship and college time, and most tradesmen work for someone for most of their career. So the difference is negligible. Most cabinet makers I’m sure make what they are asked to make, same as most accountants account for what they are asked to account for.

  41. john

    #“I spent 4 years earning my BSc in Physics and another 2 years earning my MSc in Medical Physics. I ended up becoming a store manager at Aldi” – Classic, I couldn’t stop laughing.#

    excellent article david, you have really tapped into something here judging by the response. With regards to the above quote i don’t think it is something to laugh about. The fact that such a person is unemployable in ireland really shows up how unbalanced the irish economy is. Yes if you chose to do a trade you have been a winner over the last ten years. If a person with the above skills cannot get a job in ireland then the question has to be asked do we really have a knowledge economy. Your reference to accountancy may be unfortunate because this is a profession which has done well out of the housing boom. It has also done well out of the low corporation tax regime due to the amount of money routed through ireland. So i dont think you will find too many disillusioned accountants out there. In fact Ive heard of many people looking to retrain as accountants. Also many people have a glamorised view of trades , these people have to do awkward dirty work too, crawling through dirty dusty attics.

  42. rory s

    I havnt read all the replies so apologies if im repeating anothers comments thou a quick scan of the above suggests im far from doing that…

    I consider this article an appalling piece of journalism. to suggest that we should dumbdown our workforce/youth is a moronic misjudgement.

    The white collar jobs created in teh past 10y have served to ellevate teh standard of living of teh average irish person manifold

    the job protection granted from jobs within the white collar industries far exceeds that in the tradesmans job. this is a statement true in any western economy. white collar workers are not the cogs in teh machine you suggest – WCW can and do retrain far easier than a trades-person. a 30y old accountant could easily retrain as a recruitment consultant (say) but a plumber would find it difficult to retrain as anything without a stint on the dole queue.

    we (westerners) have successfully exported the ‘menial’ labour intensive and manufacturing jobs to sources of cheap labour. Or alternatively we have inported the labour (The Polish) to do the job for us.

    as i look around my friends todays i cant help but think how lucky some of them are to have the jobs they do. born 10 years earlier they might have spent 10 years flipping burgers or as unskilled labourers. in addition, within the trades, the irish are doing particularly well as the ‘bosses’ as they understand the language and have the obvious advantage of being irish.

    The romantic notion David conjures of teh cabinet maker is a very poor example of the alternative career young irish have. I have news for you David – cabinet are made in china or sweden or indonesia these days. the true alternative is joining a game well into the second half and heading for a serious set of job cuts. The contruction industry and associated industries are (will be ) in decline for teh next few years. The dole queue our the return ticket to warsaw bekons for many ‘cabinet makers’.

    meanwhile the young educated workforce will adapt and if necessary retrain or emigrate to where ever in the world the joob markets booms.

    even the most sycophantic of the readers must concede that the route school->college->trade is more desirable (and easier finacially) than the alternative school->trade->college.

  43. Lester Thurow (MIT Economist) in his classic 1995 “The Future of Capitalism” points out that the value of higher education in the form of degrees is going down. The reason is the quality is not there. Here in the USA, much of what passes for higher education is warmed-over high school slop without rigor of any kind. Instead, as Thurow points out, the trend is toward certifications in “hard skills” by professional groups. Gresham’s Law is at work: “Bad money drives out good money.”

  44. john

    Im a Engineering Student and college teaches you nothing,we do inrelevant assignements and topics to make up the course syllabus with the end result a piece of paper not worth the paper its written on. The fact that we have polish workers taking up construction sites shows we need to focus on the working force.

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