Oily hands with segment of gear chain

Why we should work with our hands more

As engineering managers we're all caught on the horns of the same dilemma. We want to climb the slippery corporate pole, but in doing so we get further and further away from why we became engineers in the first place.

It's called 'ghost' work, and we all do it. It's that niggling, depressing stuff that we have to get off our desks in order to be perceived to be doing our jobs properly. As engineering managers we spend most of our time writing reports, administrating employment issues, dealing with compliance legislation and writing even more reports. At best it's tedious pen-pushing. At worst it's simply not what we were put on the planet to do.

The reason we feel like this is that we are supposed to make things, design things, repair things. That's why we did our vocational degrees in the various engineering disciplines. But today, as we sit in our rabbit hutches signing requisitions for photocopier toner and haggling over how much holiday can be passed on into the New Year, we've never been so far away from getting our hands dirty.

The dilemma can be summed up as 'manual versus mental', which is exactly how Matthew Crawford describes it in his new book 'The Case for Working with Your Hands'. Crawford is a unique person: he's a philosopher and a motorcycle mechanic. Not a bar-room philosopher, you understand, but a real academic philosopher from the University of Chicago. Importantly he has subtitled his book 'Why Office Work is Bad and Fixing Things Feels Good.'

Before he became a mechanic, Crawford was one of those ghost-workers who sat on a quango think-tank, coming up with ideas about what people should do. But he had nothing to show for it. At the end of the day he couldn't look at a gearbox and say 'I mended that'. He couldn't go home to his wife and tell her what he'd done that day. So, he decided to stop doing it.

He tells us that in the United States of America at least, there are warehouses full of circular saws, vices, fly-presses and other items of machinery that have served the mechanical engineer for a century. These are the machines that have been ripped out of schools and colleges because it's no longer cost-efficient to train undergraduates in 'shop' skills ('shop' is a word he uses a lot, and it's simply American for 'workshop'). The same machines get sold on eBay for a fraction of their worth, but not to aspiring young engineers. They're sold to people like himself, who, bored with ghost-work, have returned to their shop-work roots and have found a new worth and a new place in society.

Crawford says that the current swell of ghost-work is a serious global problem that will end up expressing itself as even deeper skills shortages than we have now. Why, he laments, can't we change the oil in our own cars today? Why, when you lift the bonnet of your Mercedes is there another bonnet underneath concealing the engineering behind the gleaming clean internal combustion engine? Have we really turned out backs on the human need to make and repair?

Part of the reason lies in the way we produce graduates, he says. When a new graduate goes for a job interview he or she is rarely asked about key strengths or interests. The format is more often than not rammed full of psychometric tests designed to ascertain the candidate's suitability for a role. The applicant, eager to take those first precious steps into the employment market, adapts to pass the test. Says Crawford, the academic degree has simply become a ticket that allows access into the world of work. It doesn't matter what the small-print on the ticket says, you're either in or out. So to relate this to engineering managers today, you might be a leading expert on butterfly valves, but when the time comes, you'll be promoted into management and you'll never see one again other than on an exhibition booth at the NEC.

The interesting thing here is that, while you've got years of training, education, on-the-job experience related to butterfly valves, it's almost certain that you'll know nothing about the discipline of management. It's just as certain that the training you'll receive in this misunderstood art will be post-appointment if you're lucky, or simply a few hastily-read self-help manuals that you've grabbed at an airport bookshop on your way to a conference that has nothing to do with engineering.

With your new job comes more money and more status. But, Crawford says, this comes at a cost, which is your loss of utility to the world (he's a philosopher, so he says things like that.) In other words, you move away from the world of real work where you make things, and into the world of the ghost, where you talk about process, procedure and other more abstract concepts related to getting things off your desk. The irony is that you spend your new wealth on nice things: classic motorbikes, yachts, antique furniture. All stuff that another craftsman has made, which in some way you wish you'd made yourself.

According to Crawford, the result is that ghosts are taking over the industrial world, with the net effect that virtual work is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whereas once we employed people simply to do the virtual work that's generated by the fact that large organisations exist, we now employ subsidiary ghosts to take up the overspill virtual work generated by ghosts who can't cope with the workload. This means that real work - stuff you do with your hands - gets relegated to the point of obscurity, and corporations flourish by cyclically handing around virtual tasks to departments that can repackage them and hand them to the next stage in the cycle. Much in the same way that virtual cash gets passed around the money markets, if there's nothing real behind it, nasty things happen.

On a local level - how this affects the individual - the outcome is equally alarming. As Crawford says, we're simply not meant to live like this. He refers continually to the job satisfaction he attains from working with motorcycles: he loves the fact that he uses his hands in conjunction with layers of engineering lore; he loves the fact that he's serving a useful function in his community as a whole and he gratefully accepts the best table in his local restaurant as a favour from the restaurateur whose bike he's just fixed. Real engineering in the real world has a real value. As a result, so does he.

It's likely that this will all be a bit too esoteric for some readers, but it's worth bearing in mind that it is easy to be distracted from what the purpose of our jobs as engineering managers really is. In 'The Case for Working With Your Hands' Crawford has at the very least given a voice to our frustrations when confronted with mountains of paperwork and red tape. So, next time you throw your hands in the air in exasperation, wanting to shout 'what's the point?' remember that somewhere in America there's a motorcycle mechanic philosopher who's been through all this and knows some of the answers.

'The Case for Working With Your Hands' by Matthew Crawford is published by Viking Penguin, £16.99

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