Sick Of Your Desk Job? Get A Trade, Live Long And Prosper
By John BirminghamSeptember 14, 2012
So, settling in for eight long hours at the computer before you can get out on the weekend? There is another way ... and quite probably better pay. You could finish work and take up a trade. Then when you finish work, you drive off viewing a job well done through the ute’s rear-vision mirror.
The house sits just under the crest of one the nine hills and ridgelines that help define the topography of this city. An ancient watercourse once ran from this summit down to the river through a bushland gully where Dennis Bird is trying to find steady ground for his extended ladder. The loose sandstone and shale proves to be difficult, if not treacherous, ground and the two painters frown as they struggle to find a secure footing.
I know that piece of ground well. It lies just outside my office window, and plunges away down the hill so dramatically that as I sit and type I stare directly out into the upper canopy of a scrubby, remnant patch of subtropical rainforest. The ground will never be secure. It will always feel as though it's about to crumble away and send Dennis tumbling down through the air to break himself on the rocks jutting out of the hill.
But up the ladder he goes anyway, up where I would not dare tread. A rag and a sealant gun in hand he cleans out and stops up a crack in a window frame where rain has been seeping into the house, leeching into the walls.
It is not his first visit. He was here six years ago when the old, beaten-down Queenslander was renovated; preserved in its older quarters, and made starkly new and brutally modern by the giant black-and-white box annexe that Stuart, our architect, deemed the only suitable response to the extreme geography of the ridgeline. Stuart is gone, his work done, but Dennis returns every year or so to sand and seal and repaint the edges of the old, and the new, that fray and splinter and crack open to the elements.
The elements do not rest, and nor does he.
"I finished my apprenticeship and started working for myself," he says, as we chat after he comes down the ladder. "Best decision I ever made. I've hardly had a week off since. Can't complain, really. I've taken on a couple of apprentices and they're tradesmen themselves now."
Like many tradies he splits his time between large projects and small, the latter often growing out of the former.
"It is hard to keep it all in balance, to keep everyone happy. If someone gets sick for a couple of days, or you get some bad weather, or the client wants a couple of extra things done at the end — all of that can pull your schedule apart. The big jobs sometimes let you sneak off for a couple of days, to get those little things done somewhere else. You know, to keep everyone happy."
Staying happy while keeping busy was what put Dennis up that ladder leaning against the side of my house on the top of a high hill in the first place. When he got out of school, he couldn't come at the idea of being held down in one place, day after day. He'd had enough of that rubbish. "I liked the outdoors I guess," he said. "Couldn't see myself in an office, sitting at a computer. So the alternative was to get out there, see what I was capable of really."
The money, back then in the mid-90s, wasn't certain. Not like now, when tradesmen and women are out-earning their university-educated peers by an embarrassing margin. The elites of fevered reactionary imagination? Not so elite, as it turns out. Not when it comes to trousering wads of the folding stuff. In April this year the Suncorp Bank Wages Report put those white-collared pretenders in their place. On average, a degree left you nearly $200 a week behind a decent TAFE qualification.
Depending on the exact nature of your poor career choice, becoming an administrative worker with an arts degree could find you earning just over a third of the take-home pay enjoyed by a master tradie, at least those who endure the risks of a coal mine.
But, worse than that — with the blue collar comes happiness. Turns out it brings a sort of job satisfaction largely unknown to most office workers. Marcelle Bagu, a carpenter in Melbourne, is unusually qualified to comment. A former ministerial advisor in the Bracks government, she happily, and perhaps a little cheekily, describes herself as "a perfect example of why you should take up a trade".
Bagu had always been interested in politics, having studied journalism at university, but exposure to the reality of Bismarck's sausage-making machine put her off. (The German proto-dictator is often quoted warning that the realities of politics, like sausage making, were best hidden from innocent citizens, though the line was more likely uttered by the American poet John Godfrey Saxe.)
"I didn't have the personality for it," she admits. "I didn't fit into the environment. And I really wanted to do something for myself where I could see the results of my work each day. It's much more rewarding, more fulfilling. There's a sense of leaving something behind each day."
Finding herself out of a job, thanks to an electorate that agreed she and her colleagues weren't really working out, Bagu thought about taking her well-honed skills as a professional fabulist into PR. "But, I don't know, it all sounded so bloody miserable, just pumping out press releases and glorified paper shuffling. I had an instinct, a feeling, that I simply couldn't cope in a professional environment anymore."
In working with her hands, in shaping and transforming wood, Bagu finally met a creative need she had always felt but never sated. Before she did her course at TAFE her only building experience involved LEGO. "With a trade you can express yourself. As a carpenter you can do quite beautiful things with timber, particularly when you work on old houses. I love to see the beauty in old houses, the woodwork, the care taken in the past."
Even the gross, material demands of mere commerce can offer up this sense of completion and enjoyment. Jason Rouse, a shopfitter, spoke of the satisfaction he gets seeing a store he's helped to fit out, even if he went through hell to finish the job. You see, tradies, like you and I, often have to wait for other tradies. And in Rouse's line of work that can mean pulling triple shifts to have a shop ready in time.
"We are affected by the other trades," he told me. "We put in the cabinetry and reception counters and shop fronts, and a lot of the time we can't do anything until the plumbing and the electricals, all the plastering and painting and so on are done. Everything starts piling up. We've had jobs in some shopping centres where we've pulled ridiculous hours. One place, we went from seven in the morning until eleven o'clock the next morning. It's not unusual to be finishing the very last jobs, with your drill tucked under your arm, as the first customers are coming through the door. You'll put that last screw in and try to leave as discreetly as possible."
He loves it though. They all do.