Would you guess that there are as many mechanics in the U.S. as over-the-road truck drivers? Over 1.5 million folks get down and dirty on a daily basis to keep our humble modes of transportation on-the-go, and they earn about as much as truckers on the average. They’re also about as equally forgotten about.
We avoid mechanic shops as a cultural rule-of-thumb. Ever thought much about that? As a cultural practice, we dodge mechanics like bullets, hoping that when the “CHECK ENGINE” light comes on in our vehicles we can somehow handle it ourselves to keep from wasting money on expensive shop time. But imagine for a moment what it must feel like to work a job that literally everyone tries to avoid. Mechanics are a great example of an occupational group that keeps our cultural life-blood flowing, since without them our cars and trucks wouldn’t stay on the road. We’d have a hard time getting to our offices on time, joining those fun and always slightly flirtatious after-work happy hours, and attending our kids’ weekend sports games.
Even more, when our cars or trucks do break down, we give the mechanics (and their shops) a hard time for inconveniencing us with the amount of time it takes to fix our vehicles. We whittle shops down on price as much as possible, often throwing fits of rage at what we perceive are far too overpriced bills. I’m guilty, too. But listen, it’s hard work and things don’t always fix up the way we plan. Mechanics have hard jobs, and they don’t earn enough for what they do. They make about as much as truckers, a measly $37k a year. Hardly enough to make ends meet in our modern world. Yet they keep on working their highly denigrated jobs to keep the rest of our lives moving (yes, “they” was meant to be vague).
By now, you can surely see the parallel I’m making between mechanics and truckers. At least it seems clear to me, the jobs that do the most to keep our lives in motion are the most undervalued. Hard hand-work like that of mechanics and truckers doesn’t pay as well or build as much culture capital as knowledge-heavy jobs like management consulting or lawyering. And underneath it all lies a silly assumption that hard-laborers can’t do the complex work of knowledge-workers because they’re not smart enough. How sad.
I can tell you most mechanics and truckers employ the same highly-valued critical thinking skills that everyone else (supposedly) does. Here’s a high-level breakdown of the intellectual steps it takes to solve a mechanical issue: 1) mechanics listen to how a car or truck broke down; 2) they analyze various components of the story to determine possible causes; 3) they identify mechanical or electrical components potentially involved; and, 4) they diagnose and fix the issue. Listen. Analyze. Identify. Diagnose. Fix. After just a little thought, it became obvious to me that good mechanics are master logicians of cause-and-effect relationships. While the rest of us are lucky to simply understand that conceptual line of thinking, mechanics jump through the hoops of critical thought as a matter of everyday practice. And there’s something deeply horrifying about this.
Our culture claims to value critical thinking skills, but we know deep down that most people don’t actually operate at that intellectual level. Sadly, the folks who actually deploy the skills our culture values the most are the people it often values the least, like mechanics and truckers.
I know that’s a big claim. This is a complex issue I’m bring up, the matter of what kinds of jobs we should value the most, but there’s something significant to this line of thought that’s structurally, politically, economically, socially, and culturally problematic.
Image Credit: Evan Kirby