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The Rural-Urban Connection: Why industrial arts matter

It's heartening to see Minnesota colleges expanding industrial arts offerings. High schools are adding industrial arts space and tools for everything from auto mechanics to industrial sewing.

For more than a decade, businesses small and large have been complaining they can't find qualified mechanics, electricians, sound engineers and assemblers who understand machine tolerances and can also program machine tools. I'm still hearing from my son, David, who runs a successful metalworking business in New York state, that it's challenging to hire workers who "work smart."

David's trajectory illustrates the point. In school, he was brilliant at math, but struggled with language arts. Luckily, his school offered industrial arts — called "technology," not "shop" — and AutoCAD classes. He built a beautiful model of a framed house — the best in his class. He won his only high school award for this work.

You can trace David's make-it skills back to our summers in Cromwell. When only 3 or 4, he returned from childcare at a neighbor's and said: "Mom! I broke a toy truck. I told the mom, June: 'We'll buy a new one.' But she said, 'Oh, we never buy a new one. We fix it!' Wow, Mom, they just fix it!'"

As a preteen, David brought a friend to Cromwell. They wanted to build a go-kart. I took them to Rod Walli, my friend Barb's husband. He said: "Leave them with me."

Hours later, curious, I retrieved them. Rod had asked them: "What do you need to build a go-kart?"

They said: "A motor, a frame and some wheels."

Rod said: "Hmm, I have an old snowblower motor over here, and here's something you can use as a frame. Now, I'm really busy at my workbench — you figure out how to fasten them together and let me know if you need help."

This continued. They had ideas, Rod handed them a tool and/or a fastener and showed them how to use each. Four days later, they had something that looked like an overgrown tricycle and ran down our gravel road at 30 mph.

David ended up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in mechanical engineering. He did a co-op at a small company on the east coast that asked him to build a prototype solar air conditioner for clients in India.

He loved that gig so much he stayed an extra term. He graduated and landed a job in a fabrication shop in New York City, but got fired within a month for incompatibility with his boss.

Homeless and jobless, he and a high school metal sculptor friend started their own business, 4th State Metals, with a used plasma cutter and some contacts from a former boss. Their first commission was to build a large pedestal for a statue of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first New York black congressman, that now stands at 125th and Harlem.

Today, 4th State is 13 years old and employs a dozen young men, a female welder and two female office staff. They fabricate one-of-a-kind items, from brownstone staircases to huge public art projects in their two shops (Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie), and also modestly-priced and commodity line products like furniture.

They do their design work, in conjunction with clients, on the computer. They've built three of Leo Villareal's huge light-changing sculptures, one at San Francisco's Exploratorium. And they recently installed a reconstruction of Buckminster Fuller's last geodesic dome at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark.

It's a myth that in the future, everything will be made and done by robots, that we won't need design and building and installation skills anymore. We're all dependent on skilled workers who fix our power and phone lines, run the graders and backhoes that clear our roads and dig everything from gravel to iron ore, monitor our water quality, cut and sew fabric for everything from boat dock canopies to heavy duty motorcycle suits, and monitor and fix the robots that will be replacing routine work.

So many men are handy, learning from family and friends and schooling. You can see how a single course in high school shaped my son's life work. I'm not handy myself. I'm an excellent veggie gardener and healthy food cook. If I had to, I could get a job at a truck farm or a whole-foods restaurant. And I'm pretty good on the computer, thanks to my mom insisting that I take a summer school typing course. But I wish I'd had sewing and shop.

And one last thing, ladies. In our study for the Minnesota Legislature, Making Work Pay (2012), we found that skilled blue-collar jobs provide good incomes for workers in our state.

And something else. That pay disparities between men and women were lowest in these occupations — lower than in professions requiring a college degree and lower than relatively unskilled work.

The "trades," as they've been long called, have been resistant to women workers for decades. But shares of women in these jobs are growing. And our technical and community colleges offer opportunities to learn these skills.

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