Soon after my father Dig earned his engineering degree from the University of Alabama, he landed a technician job at Stockham Valves and Fittings. One gray winter morning, he had car trouble and his uncle Earl gave him a ride to work. As they drew near, Uncle Earl fell silent.
Stretched before them lay acre upon acre of Birmingham’s gritty industrial district. Against this backdrop gradually rose the grim brick facade of the Stockham plant. At the foundry gate, workers in raggedy clothes filed past, shoulders down as they punched in to their shifts.
Uncle Earl pulled up to the gate. He put the car in park and took in the scene. After a moment, he spoke.
“You ain’t going in there, are you, boy?”
Well, yes, Dig replied, that’s where he worked.
Uncle Earl pleaded with him.
“Don’t go in there, boy! You can’t make money in a place like that, cooped up like a chicken or a hog!”
He paused. Then he said:
“A man makes money with his head and his mouth.”
Uncle Earl kept Dig in the car about 40 minutes that day, trying to talk him out of the dystopian wasteland that lay beyond the factory gates. Dig went in to work anyway. Ultimately, though, he decided Uncle Earl was right: It was no way to make a living.
I used to think this story was a parable of white collar versus blue collar labor. But I don’t anymore, and I doubt Dig ever meant it like that. After all, Uncle Earl himself wasn’t a white collar worker. He was a furniture salesman.
And Uncle Earl wasn’t telling Dig to get a nice clean desk job per se. He was saying that routine work was anti-talent. That following orders and fitting in were not long-term earning solutions. That if Dig didn’t live by his wits, he would risk too much.
For Dig, the future lay in the creative class.
“Creative class” is a term that, as far as I know, was coined by Richard Florida in 2002. He was describing an emerging demographic of young, well educated, well paid people who prized a certain urban lifestyle and sought to create “meaningful new forms” on which corporate profits depended.
Fourteen years on, I’ve developed a somewhat different take on the creative class (and maybe the author has as well). First, I don’t think it’s new. Neither has it much to do with age, location, or personal income. It certainly has nothing to do with consumption preferences and, as we’ve seen, corporations have other ways to yield profits. Even the relationship to formal education is, I think, looser than it may have seemed at the turn of the 21st century.
These attributes are transient and superficial. Strip them away, and what’s left? People who turn ideas into things.
Tradespeople are the creative class.
Trades are typically thought of as skilled manual work. But that’s an Industrial Age construct. Modern tradespeople make things that are tangible or intangible. They both plan and execute. The distinction is not what, but what for. It’s not how, but know how.
And here’s the thing about tradespeople: They can operate independently of management hierarchies. In the corporate world, they’re engineers, salespeople, accountants, coders, artists, writers, trainers, scientists, counsels, chefs, designers of various specialties, and technicians of every kind. Outside the corporate world, they’re the same. Only the path to income changes.
The creative class supersedes social status and the professions. Dig’s Harvard-educated heart surgeon calls himself “just a mechanic.” I don’t think it’s false modesty, not entirely. Mostly, it’s expectation-setting. He’s acknowledging that his job is to fix human bodies if he can, but the tools and spare parts available to him are limited, and in any case the machine will eventually wear out. So he’s right, he is a mechanic.
In modern trades, the thing you make can be a product, a patch, an offer, a deal, a structure, a solution, a repair, a part, a schematic, a solution, a work of art, something I haven’t mentioned, or something no one has yet imagined. In any case, it’s a thing you can make yourself, independent of other labor. And you can exchange it for economic gain.
Tradespeople are different from administrators, and this is why a college degree is no ticket to the creative class. Most degree holders I know are administrators. They manage processes and—if they’re both good and properly enabled—make sure those processes yield positive outcomes. That’s a valuable function, but it’s hard to trade independently.
For the working class (which is all of us who earn from our labor), having a trade manages risk, especially as we age. Why? Because in most organizations, roles are typically calibrated to require only a limited range of capability. This helps to maintain orderly operating procedures and also prevents any one employee from becoming a single point of failure for the business. But it also means that beyond a certain point it doesn’t matter how talented and hardworking a given individual may be, because it adds no further perceived value to the business. As a result, as soon as your total compensation exceeds the midpoint for your role, you’re at risk.
In fact, employees face many single points of failure. I’m surprised people still find it necessary to say, “You can’t work in one place and retire with a gold watch anymore!” I don’t think anyone has believed that for 30 years. But one thing has changed. It used to be that if your employer were doing well and you were doing a good job, you needn’t fear for your career. That’s no longer true. Therefore, without a trade, you may be removed from the labor force sooner than you intend.
That’s not to say employment isn’t important to the creative class. First, just about every trade is learned on the job. Second, the experience and credentials you acquire while working for others can make your trade more valuable when you work for yourself.
If you’re a career administrator, you may have developed a trade without fully realizing it. Not every competency lends itself to one, but sometimes the only way to know is to try it out. If you don’t have the resources to commit full time, you might pursue a few projects on the side and see how it goes. It’s hard, but it can be done—just make sure you maintain boundaries. (Frank Lloyd Wright learned that the hard way while employed at Adler & Sullivan.)
Uncle Earl was a smart guy. He knew what real opportunity was: Using your know-how to make it rain. If that’s what you want to do, don’t let arbitrary parameters get in your way. Whoever you are, whatever your trade, the creative class is a big enough tent for us all.