The Value of Trades

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One of the most common phone calls I get is from people who have an old barn and want to know what it's worth. Until a decade ago, when turning old barns into McMansion monstrosities became popular, most historic barns sat abandoned at the end of a farm lane because farming technology had made them largely obsolete. Machinery had changed how we farm and live so the need for a “threshing floor,” where grain could be extracted from sheaves and dried, or a “granary,” where it could be stored until it was ground into flour, was long past.

Even the hay mow was of little use because we had progressed from loose hay to square bales and then round bales that are difficult to maneuver in a space where large timber posts and braces act as obstructions to progress. Those grand old buildings that were once the heart and soul of country life have little if any perceived value in the modern, high-tech world of machine based farming.

But what about the tradesmen who built those beautiful barns? Was the value of their skills lost to technological advancement as well? Although that conclusion is an easy one to come to, a closer look reveals something a bit more insidious. Have you ever wondered what happened to the concept of good, better, best in marketing? It used to be that you had a real choice between paying less and getting something that was cheaply made or paying more and getting something that was well built.

My grandfather used to own a Cadillac because he felt it was higher quality, would last longer and end up costing him less. To him it had more value and that value was tied to how well it was built. Today we are sold products based on how badly we want them or how good they will look on us or make us feel, none of which have anything to do with how well they are made.

Unfortunately the disconnection of price versus value has permeated beyond the products that are shipped across the ocean in container ships loaded with Levis and Lays potato chips and into the neighborhoods of cookie-cutter developments full of plastic covered boxes with “lickem stickem” facades trying to emulate the latest showcase in the charade of homes. The need for skilled trades is limited to electricians and HVAC installers while the construction work is done by the lowest bidder.

The price is based on what the market will bear and the value is established by an appraiser looking at “comparables” which line the streets like soldiers in uniforms that are designed in response to fashion instead of function. The reality is these houses aren’t built to suit the lifestyles and needs of their new owners; rather they are manufactured and then marketed by agents of the economic machinery.

So how can trades be of any value in this modern world of ticky-tacky buildings and mass marketing? The truth is they are worth more today than ever. The fact that so much of what is made today is mass produced and disposable doesn’t change the fact that what was made by skilled trades people in the past still exists and needs to be maintained. The same skills that were used to create those magnificent old barns and farmhouses and historic city neighborhoods are required today to maintain them. And even though most of what we see being built today is junk, there are customers out there who want something built by skilled hands and meant to last. Because so few people have been taught those skills in recent times, the people who possess them are in greater demand than ever and, according to the laws of supply and demand, are worth more because of it.

An important piece of information for young people, and especially today when we are faced with such difficult decisions, is that learning and practicing a trade is a reward of pride and satisfaction beyond any monetary value it may have. Being able to use your skills to transform wood, or stone or metal into something beautiful and lasting is a reward on its own, but knowing that possessing those skills makes you a valuable person in today’s world is an added benefit.

That message is one we need to teach not only to young people, but to the parents of those young people to help them overcome the stigma that they have been given by the society we created in which we forgot how important it was that there be a an honorable place for trades.