Learning a Trade - Embedded.com

Learning a Trade

As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast the University of NewOrleans ordered a mandatory evacuation of all students. My son escaped,and when the extent of the destruction of that poor city becameapparent he returned home for a semester, working part-time as amason's apprentice. Over the recent summer break the work went to fulltime.

Though exhausted at the end of each work day he liked the work,taking great satisfaction in bricking up a wall or setting stones in auseful and elegant way. It also helped him appreciate thephysically-easier intellectual life of studying math and physics somuch more. By the end of the summer he was a capable bricklayer, havingacquired a skill that will never be offshored and one that will alwaysbe in demand.

Today's vocational schools teach trade skills of all sorts.Unfortunately some youngsters and professors in these institutions havethe deluded belief that networking and Microsoft- certification arealso worthy trades, so these skills are taught alongside plumbing andcosmetology.

Networking is, I suspect, one of those transient occupations thatwill disappear when some as-yet-uninvented wireless technology replacesEthernet. Networking hardware will be totally integrated in computersand self-configuring. Those networking and similar infotech “trades”will disappear.

But plumbing will never go away. Nor will the demand forelectricians, masons, and hair-cutters. There are many sorts of skilledhands-on services that will continue to be outsourced to localmerchants and entrepreneurs. Recessions will come and go; wages andemployment will fluctuate, but in general these trades will flourish.

Engineers, too, will always be needed, but the increasing level ofspecialization means that we professionals are not as fungible astradesmen. When the industry enters one of its periodic retractions asemiconductor process engineer won't find work in ASIC design. DSPfirmware specialists will have a hard time snagging that RF design job.

Today's techie resume contains a blizzard of acronyms thatrecruiters mindlessly match against a job's requirements. Miss thematch and you don't get the position. This is not new; my Dad, an earlyspace pioneer, tells me of an engineer who was the world's expert atdesigning wheels for lunar roving vehicles at Grumman in the 1960s.Where did that fellow get a job when Apollo imploded in 1970?

But a plumber can work on pipes anywhere.

A recent interesting though long article  posits that trade work is something bigger than mind-numbingCarpal-Tunnel inducing repetition. Manual competence elevates us, makesus the masters of our domains.

The use of tools (physical tools, not IDEs) helps us understand thephysical world. I remember working in a machine shop as a kid; onegrizzled old machinist picked up on my interest in becoming an engineerand warned me repeatedly: “don't be one of them engineers what designsstuff that can't be built.” Indeed, in my career I've noticed thatengineers who once worked as technicians have a more visceral sense ofelectronics than those who haven't.

Though college-educated information employees often look down onblue collar workers, the fact is that more of them run their ownbusinesses than we do. They're more likely to be millionaires. Onewonders if tradespeople are happier than office workers, if they useless Prozac, Viagra and all of the other little pills so vigorouslyflogged by Madison Avenue.

The article referenced above concludes by recommending we advisecollege-bound students to pursue their education, but to study broadly.And then to work summers at a trade.

That's not bad advice.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embeddeddevelopment issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helpscompanies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .


Hey Jack!Maybe you oughta purchase some land and start a farm eh? This will force ya to 'spin-up' and learn some trade post haste!

How do I know? I grew up on a farm in the Central Valley, California!

Did you know that inspite of the big beast of a trade deficit, (with China), we Americans sport one of the largest trade-surpluses in one specific sector of our economy … and that is, (drum roll please) Farm Products! Mostly wheat, corn and other such stuff.

It is easy to forget that the mega-monster China economic engine still needs to feed the billions of people … and that only about 30%, (actually I have heard less) of China is actually aerable farm land.

So, there you go! You can trade in your logic analyzer/compiler/oscilloscope for a hoe/shovel/tractor!

The hoe and shovel go for about $15 each… the tractor will set you back at around $110k!

– Ken Wada


I was out of nerd work for 2 years, so I was a handyman after I gave up looking for a gig. It is very satisfying to go home at the end of the day and look at your work. The feedback is immediate, instead of a normal engineers task that gives you the right squiggle on a scope after months of work.

It also gives you a good sense of what works – the tactile experience of manipulating physical things is critical. One of the best interview questions is “What were your favorite toys as a kid?”. If the answer is Legos, erector sets, lincoln logs, etc, then the person has a real good chance at being a really good engineer.

Besides – a good trade is fun to do. I volunteer at Habitat, and find it very satisfying. While they are happy to take and train unskilled folks, it just adds to the experience to know what to do.

– bandit


This is a great advice for the young generation.I learned carpentry working few summer with my father since I was 11.Not only I learn a trade, helped my gain interest in engineering, but also gave my confidence that I have a skill I can use as full time and make me encouraged to always learn new stuff.

– atef massoud


Excellent article, Jack. Once again, right on target. I'm working that on each of my 7 kids that is still at home (the other 2 are already there).

Ken's comments on farming are 100% on too – and with the growth of biodiesel (actually, that was Diesel's original intent) and automotive ethanol markets, farming is looking better all the time.

We might be at war with China on IP and offshoring, but we hold the trump card in our Midwest. BTW, ever look into who is feeding the North Koreans? They aren't doing it for themselves…

– Andy Kunz


Nice article. Dovetails nicely with my feelings (so must be right) that we do some of our young people a dis-service by saying they must all go to college.

Not that working in the trades is easy: it isn't. Long hours, often poor working conditions. I don't (at 50+ yrs) want to work out on a site in January or mid August.

But the rewards for a skilled tradesman who has some drive and ambition can be great. Where I live (a nice suburb in CT) there are three plumbers in my neighborhood. And no other engineers.

– Mark Walter


While in high school, I earned a vo-tech degree in “radio and tv repair” (1970's). This degree got me a part time job at the local telephone company, which paid for my college education. I've often thought that many of the other trades offered could do the same, but…

They told us that construction, trucking, services, etc. must be performed locally and therefore cannot be off-shored. No one mentioned that immigrants, a large number of which are not entirely legal, would be filling these jobs at low wages. The southwestern US is now flooded with these workers. In the future, you will either be working for low (by US standards) wages as part of a global labor pool or you will be an entrepreneur, exploiting this inexpensive talent.

– Steve Wise


Funny you should write this article this week. I'm 31. After nearly a decade of formal work in software and related embedded systems design and 10 more years previously of general software development work, I just sent for the study materials to apply for my Alabama Residential Builder's License.

There is no satisfaction like that of constructing something concrete (pardon the pun). There comes a point when pushing code through an IDE and a debugger cannot match the joy of building something that non-engineers will see.

As we all know anyway, a Framing Nailer and a Circular saw are just components of an IDE for blueprints. All someone has to do now is come up with an HDL for buildings and at least two incompatible netlist formats and we'll have something.

When a change is needed, get a bigger hammer: Don't switch your workstation from an AMD Claw Hammer to an AMD Sledge Hammer; Get a real claw hammer, framing hammer, shingling hammer, drilling hammer and 3 lb sledge hammer and go hit something.

I think you hit the nail on the head with this article.

– Cameron Kellough


I couldn't agree with you more.

My great grandfather owned a hardware store back in the day, my grandfather and father worked there. When my grandfather was in a nursing home, I brought him the news that I was now working in a hardware store in Boca. This man hadn't spoken a word in over a month, and immediately started to laugh over the longevity of the tradition. There is no doubt that learning a trade helps enormously in everyday life.

When I was younger I built go-karts (the engines too!!)

And when in college, I worked for 2 ISPs, one of which was the universities Network Operations Center where I got to design their current backbone and place the part order with cisco for 1.2 million!

I don't know how sandwich making or ice cream jerk helped out, but my parents would argue even that builds character and good work ethic ” imagine, going to work every day for 5 bucks an hour. ” a job is a job, and no matter how small, it pays to do it well.

All of this absolutely builds what I like to think of as an 'intuition factor' (equivalent to age = wisdom) which helps me perform in every day tasks.

Anyway, thanks for the interesting read.

– Eric Shufro


Jack, I couldn't agree more. My father taught me how to rebuild engines before I could spell it. I worked at a local TV and VCR repair shop in Jr. High and spent my time in High School as an electrician for an amusement park. I learned electrical, control systems, high voltage distribution, pneumatics, hydraulics, and much, much more. In many ways, these experiences were far more valuable than my time at college. It was a chance to work along side hard working, experienced individuals in real life situations. We often designed things ourselves, working by the seat of our pants. The hours were long, hard, deathly hot, bitter cold, and sometimes very dangerous. In the end, I wouldn't trade any of the time for all the classrooms in the world.

-Rob Dautel


This is very good advice.

Unfortunately, my trade is offshored already. I learned to solder, and soldering for a (famous) local electronics design company (now a shadow of itself, and partly acquired by a large midwest company) got me through school and my first gig as an engineer.

Since then, I have worked for contract engineering companies, startups, appliance makers, and myself. I have soldered everything from high current SCRs to 0603 caps and resistors and fine pitch ICs. It is just that my designs will likely be put together by Chinese labor now, not the local shop after the first or second run.

There were four “most goods” I think I ever did:

1. An amateur radio license. Talk about instant backgound as an EMC guru.

2. General Radio Telephone Operators License, with RADAR endorsement.

3. PE License.

4. a month long bookkeeping course.

So there are trades (plumbing, automotive, electricians, etc.) requiring hands and some requiring smarts. Bookkeeping can be done anywhere. The previously mentioned trades need bookeepers and tax preparers local to them. Some of the bookeeping manual methods reminded me of loop and node analysis of circuits.

The others are helpful.

– Douglas Datwyler


My father was a carpenter who built his own home and five duplexes. I worked along side Dad as he built those structures. That included surveying the land and designing the dwellings and capturing the design with blueprints. We did it all, carpentry, plumbing, electrical, design custom scissor strusses, drywalling, landscaping. There is were I learned principles of laying down a good foundation and you build with ease. Everything fits together. My education was Civil Engineering then I switched to Physics and Math majors. When I was asked as a young project engineer were I had learned my orgainizational skills and how to put a system together, my answer was easy, it all started from what Dad taught me.

– Bernardino Rubalcaba


Learning a trade helps us bridge theory and practise.

– Britto Edward Victor


I learned plumbing working for a contractor during college summers. It's interesting that it takes more time to achieve journeyman status in the plumbing field than it takes to get “engineer” in your job title. (At least in the state of Maryland, anyway)

– Jim Esterby


I completely agree. While repairing my first toilet I gained great insight to how one shots, voltage regulators, and oscillators can be built. As you said, never look down on people who do physical labor, and always think of oneself as a glorified technician. I always ask job candidates if they know how to solder. If an engineer has soldered a small outline package onto a PCB and has made the circuit work, she/he will be useful at our site.

– Phil Salzmann


I believe we started losing it a long time ago when we deemed physical labor beneath an individual. Today's generation u,v,w,x,y,z, or whatever has been brainwashed to put more value on getting a piece of paper that may or may not reflect real abilty and then socially networking themselves into a job where they hope the most dirt they get on their hands is from a dusty desk that someone did not clean. I cannot blame the individuals brought up under a social umbrella that has so brainwashed then into thinking that their self-worth is tied up in material possesions or some title made up in a boardroom. I am with you in thinking that the loss of true skills associated with a trade or the ability to adapt and learn a trade is a tragedy. I am not sure how we can turn back the trend, if at all. People have so associated this movement with part of being some sort of superior social class that it will be hard to reverse. I do not know where our present notions of class and privilege come from. I tend to blame everything on the Harvard MBA types, but that may be the engineer in me talking. In the end if individuals follow someone down a path which will eventually plunge off a cliff, they only have themselves to blame.

– Kenneth Krueger Jr

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