Economy Focus

Hot new job for middle-class students: manual labor

A shift in thought

Young workers are becoming barbers, bookbinders, furniture-makers and jewelers. In the process, they are elevating what, historically, were lowly manual labor jobs into sought-after career paths with cultural cachet.

A student tunes a piano. North Bennet Street School, in Boston's North End, runs full-time, accredited adult-education programs for a wide assortment of trades. Its carpentry program doubled in size in 2014, as young workers gravitate toward 'bespoke' trades, such as woodworking, bookbinding, and old-timey barbering.
Courtesy of North Bennet Street School
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Hunched over their workspaces in a dusty, sunlit room in the North Bennet Street School in Boston’s North End, Jim Reid-Cunningham’s bookbinding workshop seems grateful for an interruption.

The class is working through an unforgiving technique for repairing and restoring leather bindings, one in which tiny, irreversible errors can build off each other until the whole thing falls apart. “It’s like getting behind in the pitch count in baseball,” Mr. Reid-Cunningham says. His students nod in exasperated agreement.

North Bennet Street School runs accredited adult-education programs for a wide assortment of trades, from jewelry- and furniture-making to residential carpentry. In another part of the sprawling facility, located in an old police building, a student puts the finishing touches on his handmade violin. In the piano tuning and repair classrooms, a poster handwritten in markers lists “50 reasons for sluggish keys.” Reason 23: “Sticky from spilt soda.” Going through room after room of precision tools, workbenches, and hand-carved clocks, two things are noticeably absent: desks and computers.

Bookbinding class. North Bennet Street School, in Boston's North End, runs full-time, accredited adult education programs for a wide assortment of trades, from jewelry and furniture making to locksmithing and residential carpentry.
Courtesy of North Bennet Street School
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A student works in a jewelry making project. North Bennet Street School, in Boston's North End, runs full-time, accredited adult education programs for a wide assortment of trades, from jewelry and furniture making to locksmithing and residential carpentry.
Courtesy of North Bennet Street School
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“Our students don’t want to sit still for very long,” says provost Claire Fruitman, a graduate who built furniture professionally for a decade before coming back to teach and work in administration.

NBSS has been around for more than a century, but it caters to a corner of the labor market that has been gaining prominence more recently: young, middle-class workers drawn to decidedly old-fashioned occupations that allow them to work with their hands. Many – bookbinding, butchery, cutting hair in barbershops – used to be seen as menial trades. Among today’s practitioners however, they’re sought-after, artistic callings that offer a certain level of cultural cachet and, in some cases, more stability than a garden-variety office job.

For those who pursue it, such work is “an opportunity to use both their heads and their hands,” says Richard Ocejo, a sociologist and the author of the new “Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.” “Learned people are dedicating themselves to these trades despite having other options.”

Such a path is hardly accessible for everyone. If anything, the rise of such careers is a product of more rigid class and career stratification. Nor does it mean that these jobs on the whole are becoming more elevated. A meat carver in a national supermarket chain likely can’t get a job at a whole-animal butcher shop in SoHo. Instead, it points to a new, narrow sliver of the service economy – one that works entirely in the service of high-end “knowledge workers” like doctors, lawyers, tech industry and finance workers – and carries a certain level of status in itself. 

“Getting one of these jobs is the result of a search for meaning in work, to get recognized for what they do, and for an occupation to anchor their lives and provide them with purpose,” Dr. Ocejo writes in “Masters of Craft.” “It is also the signal of their own privileged freedom to choose the career they wish.”

Quantifying the growth of these careers is difficult; job statistics don’t differentiate salon stylists from old-timey barbers, for example. One of the few concrete pieces of evidence is in the increase of new, independent alcohol distillers, which are licensed and regulated. Another: Thanks to applicant demand and a rebounding housing market, NBSS doubled the available slots in its carpentry program in 2014.

But the anecdotal evidence is everywhere – in the prominence of Etsy and craft forums, high-end flea markets, and furniture trade shows. Ocejo points to the rise of the “foodie” movement, which transformed what it could mean to be a chef. “That’s a bad job, with terrible hours; kitchens are terrible places to work, you get burns and cuts,” he says. “Unless you worked at an elite restaurant, no one cared about you. Now with open kitchens and so many different media [covering the food scene], it has become a very different job.”

A few things are driving the trend. One is urban gentrification and the increased concentration of the wealthy, educated upper class into cities. Having an individualized consumer experience, where they can talk to the creator about a custom chair or locally sourced appetizer, “appeals to their sensibilities,” Ocejo says. So the workers that cater to them have become more outwardly knowledgeable, more primed for interacting with that specific sort of client. There’s a performative aspect to it. “It’s [buying a table] and meeting the maker, having him convey what goes into that table and what makes it special and different than a table you would buy in the furniture store,” he says.

A student works in a jewelry making project. North Bennet Street School, in Boston's North End, runs full-time, accredited adult education programs for a wide assortment of trades, from jewelry and furniture making to locksmithing and residential carpentry.
Courtesy of North Bennet Street School
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Another: For everyone who isn’t a wealthy, in-demand professional, the job market overall is less stable, and no longer neatly demarcated between blue-collar and white-collar work. So, young people reason, they might as well do what they like. Miranda Harter, a 2016 NBSS graduate, worked in retail inventory before enrolling in the school’s jewelry program. She’d be tasked with cataloguing accessories in an online database, mind-numbing work that put what she was missing in her career literally at her fingertips. “I was looking at these beautiful pieces of jewelry come across my desk, and I thought, I want to be making these things,” she remembers.

'It seems like an honest profession'

Ms. Harter now works full-time for a local jeweler in Somerville, and the owner allows her to use the space to make and sell her original pieces. It’s already proven more stable than her old job, which she lost during the Great Recession. “I’m working solid regular hours, I have a weekend, a boss who appreciates me,” she says. “That’s not something I experienced a lot in the retail world. To me, it seems like an honest profession, and more recession-proof. People are always getting married.”

Ms. Fruitman at NBSS says 30 is the average age of the student body, which means an “awful lot” of it is made up of career transitioners like Harter. “They've done college or some college, it wasn't for them, or maybe they've even been out there working and realized that whatever it is they're doing just isn't satisfying.”  

Fruitman is also describing herself. Before becoming a furniture maker, she majored in theater at Emerson College and worked as a photo stylist until the work dried up. 

“I was at the point where I really wanted to do something that was tangible,” she says. "I didn't know you could do this. I went to college because that's what everybody does. And that's what I was expected to do.”

Ocejo heard similar stories while profiling barbers, butchers, and high-end cocktail bartenders in Manhattan.

“I grew up similarly to them, and I knew a bunch of people who were bartending to do something else, but these people were calling it their career,” he says. “In 2007, that wasn’t normalized yet.” In “Masters of Craft,” he writes that his subjects “often describe having to justify what they do to their families, who imagined a nice, clean, stable office job for their kids.”

But he says that dynamic has changed, even in the handful of years since he gathered those interviews. “Today if a kid goes out of a four-year college and wants to be a chef or butcher, I don’t think their parents would be as bewildered by it.”

What’s more, Fruitman notes, the career trajectories for some of these professions aren’t as narrow as they can seem at first glance. Bookbinding is hardly a growth industry, for instance, but someone trained in it “can have a bindery, or a repair shop, can work at a museum, a library, a university.” A whole-animal butcher can move on to run the meat program for a hospitality group or restaurateur.

“There are so many opportunities out there,” she says.

Not a path to the middle class

Those opportunities aren’t available to everyone, though. Just because the middle class is increasingly occupying these jobs, that doesn’t mean they are paths to the middle class. NBSS is mindful of its students’ career prospects, but completing the jewelry program, for example, costs close to $50,000.

The circles that Ocejo explores in his research, too, are overwhelmingly white, young, college-educated, and male. “There are cultural reference points and frankly networks that are important to getting these jobs that people who didn’t go to college don’t have,” he says. “Moving to city and working in an industry after college, you know where the ‘cool’ spots are. Where can I get cool food, cool clothing? You know that in a way that someone from a low-income Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn does not.”

Fitting the mold can be the difference between working a low-level job or its bespoke equivalent: 60 percent of all bartenders are women, for example, but the majority of cocktail bartenders, who come up with their own recipes and participate in showcases and competitions, are men.

Those other jobs aren’t going anywhere. “The meat counter at the supermarket isn’t closing,” Ocejo points out. It serves a different client base and means that the consumer-maker relationship is being further codified along class lines. “There’s a re-entrenchment of class divisions there,” he says.

Because they occupy a still-small, fuzzily-defined sliver of the economy, what’s next for these types of careers is an open question. Some jobs hinge largely on being seen as a tastemaker and fitting a certain image, which means they have a built-in shelf life. Most of the people profiled in “Masters of Craft” are under 35. But if the preference for small-batch, “authentic” products persists, Ocejo says, those workers could open their own shops, or move into corporate roles to help large, established companies keep pace.

He sees signs that the demand for these products is increasingly mainstream. “We’re seeing these businesses crop up outside New York, San Francisco, these major cities,” he says. “I live in the Hudson Valley. Here, we have a couple of farm-to-table restaurants, one butcher shop, one cocktail bar, neighborhood places have local craft beers. We wouldn’t have had that a decade ago.”

For some, figuring out how to grow their businesses without sacrificing that small-batch credibility is the main focus. Tod Van Mertens, a furniture maker in New Hampshire, recently moved his operation from a barn in his backyard to a 7,500-square-foot industrial space. “It’s really changed the quality of my work and made it more efficient,” he says. “I’ve always been this backyard, handmade craftsman and now I’m on the bridge of real manufacturing. So many designers make something and sub it out to a factory, but I still have my hands in as many aspects as possible.” 

He spends a lot of his time at the moment on the administrative side of running his business, but wants to get back to creating new things in his workshop. “Right now I’m doing all of the office work, sales, and client interactions. But I’d like to bring on a couple more people to do it for me.”

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