Top Mech: Why can’t the trades become as popular as the culinary arts?

When I was young I got a summer job at a French country restaurant in New England. The idea was to live at the restaurant in an effort to make big bucks and sharpen my French.

The days were incredibly long. Breakfast at 7, serve coffee and pastry to the owner and the chef for their working meeting at 8, vacuum the dining room at 9, fold napkins and polish silver at 10. Lunch service from 11:30 to 3. Our dinner of leftovers at 4:30, followed by more folding, polishing, and vacuuming. Dinner service from 5 to 11 or 12. Snacks and a beer at the bar until about 1. This was the schedule six days a week for 11 months. The staff went home to their families in August.

At the restaurant, the French stood at the top, followed by a Spaniard or two, and some Slavs and Guatemalans. I was the only American. And in that crew, I was definitely low man.

The food was fantastic, the personalities outsized, the yelling and screaming deafening.

And the work was the hardest I have ever done, bar none. I was a sub-waiter. I was 19 years old and I could barely move my legs in the morning.

I didn’t last a week.

So with only that tiny view into the culinary world, I am somewhat mystified at the rise in our culture of the celebrity chef. The life is so hard and, in its long hours, so un-celebrated and lonely. How did this strange, hidden world get translated into books, movies, and reality TV series?

I’m sure it has something to do with the growing wealth of the country — at least at the top. Wealthy people can afford expensive, novel foods and experiences. And the media need new fodder for gossip and celebration.

And now we have troops of young people who want to go to culinary school in the hope that by experiencing its rigors and unlocking a number of technical secrets, they will control their own destiny.

Many want to be celebrity chefs. Others seek that moment of pride when they place their creation on the plate, making it as appetizing as possible, and wait for a nod of appreciation from the customer.

So I have a question: What would it take to give other areas of endeavor — I am thinking of the so-called trades, such as mechanic, machinist, or carpenter — the same opportunities to attract young people who want to express their talents?

I think the answer has two sides: First, we need the demand for the product. It may be that the hollowing out of American manufacturing that occurred in the ’90s will be partly, and slowly, reversed. This is because China’s poor infrastructure, rising wage costs, and difficulties in logistics are making setting up shop in the U.S. more attractive. I have received a number of calls from manufacturers asking me for the names of logistics experts who can help set up new factories. Maybe this is a harbinger of a trend.

The second is education. We need programs that will tell bright kids that it is okay to go into the trades. They need to see the utility of the program, the value of the work, and the possibilities for the future.



We need educational institutions to provide the initiatives. Classes, outreach, placement. Perhaps create an internship system, such as the one that has thrived in Germany, helping to make it an engineering and manufacturing leader, even with some of the highest costs worldwide. In Germany, every tradesman in training is required to enter at least two internships of six- to 13-week durations, and their internship performance is graded just as classes would be.

It may be that in the fullness of time, a successful American tradesperson will reach a certain career pinnacle. He or she will have a successful company, perhaps write a book, get well known.

Then these tradespeople could do what Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, did for engineering. Remember, he had been alarmed that young people simply did not know what engineers did for a living. So he set up a number of lighthearted engineering competitions. For example, one challenge was to make a machine that would climb a small hill constructed in a gymnasium and be able to fight off all the other competitors. Others would fling ping-pong balls at targets. Along the way, the students would see the value of teamwork and, not incidentally, connect with figures in education and industry. It may even be that current reality cooking shows, such as Top Chef or Chopped, were inspired by the engineering competition model.

I don’t want to romanticize the trades any more than I would romanticize high cuisine. There’s hard work and many thankless tasks ahead. But as with the German experience with manufacturing and the American experience with the culinary arts, the possibilities for wealth, satisfaction and — who knows? — reality TV fame await.

Next time I meet an educator or legislator, I am going to promote that vision: Top Mech.

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