Are You Young and Eager? Try the Trades

There are many reasons why Catholic youth should consider the trades and entrepreneurship.

Statue of St. Joseph
Statue of St. Joseph (photo: Shutterstock)

I have a deep respect for those who work in the trades. My father was a carpenter, and my brother is a builder. Yet, it is a career path that has fallen out of popularity in the last 20 years — the average tradesman is 57 years old. Meanwhile, demand for good repairmen and contractors is outstripping supply.

This presents an amazing opportunity for young Catholics to serve many people and consequently earn a great income to provide for their family by entering such a profession. The question is, will they do it?

The trend for several years has been for young career-driven professionals to go into computer programming and software development or to enter the healthcare industry. Most workers consider big businesses to be safe, secure employers and thus highly desirable. The average American is uneasy about the volatility of owning or working for a small business. Huge companies like Walmart, Amazon, McDonald’s, Kroger and IBM — not to mention the biggest employer of all, the U.S. government  — provide hundreds of thousands of jobs to Americans. So why should a young Catholic family man be willing to take the risk of owning or working in a small business?

Most small businesses fail in the first five years. The skills of an entrepreneur and owner-manager are different from those of a laborer and all three skill sets take time to learn. Plus, it can be difficult to find reliable crew members. At first glance, it doesn’t seem worth it.


Catholic Romanticism and Socialism Unmasked

Thirty years ago it was popular in some Catholic circles to be nostalgic about medieval culture. As Quixotic readers of history and classic literature, we preferred to gloss over the trials and hardships of pre-industrial cultures and thought we should try to restore these civilizations. We tended to think that everything would be better if we lived a more primitive existence.

I was surprised to discover later in life that this mode of thinking was more influenced by Marx and Rousseau than Aquinas and Augustine. I realized utopias are completely impractical. I had rashly judged that if a profession or way of life didn’t exist before the industrial revolution, it was probably bad. Instead of seeing opportunities in modern businesses, I saw only moral problems and corruption. These ideas left me paralyzed and fatalistic about my career. Since the restoration of Christendom and the agrarian age are not likely to be restored in one’s lifetime, one might as well work for a big company and get that steady paycheck.

As I continued to research, I realized there is even more at work in our society underlying our cultural dysphoria. The current secular mind embraces an egalitarian ideal that insists all men be reduced to the lowest common denominator — the ‘minimum wage worker.’ Marx recognized only two classes of people — the bourgeoisie (owners of capital) and the proletariat (the working class) — and socialism insists on the reduction of all men to the proletariat for the sake of equality.

Josef Pieper, in his classic work Leisure: The Basis of Culture, defines being proletarian as “being bound to the working-process.” Pieper lists three conditions that bind the proletariat to the working-process:

  • lack of capital ownership (within families),
  • state-controlled ownership, and
  • inner (spiritual) poverty.

Pieper’s anecdote to being a proletarian serf is likewise threefold — a process he calls “de-proletarianization” — ownership, limited state power and inner wealth. In short, families flourish economically through capital ownership which includes not just owning stocks, bonds, and real estate, but also businesses.

What is happening to the American ideal of owning one’s own business? The socialist elite are desperately trying to eliminate middle-class business owners via crony-capitalist incentives for bigger businesses.

For the future of family life in this country, Catholics should push back.


Three Types of Workers

There are three types of necessary workers: laborers, managers and entrepreneurs. One person can wear all three hats, but most efficient, competitive businesses find a way to specialize by forming a team.

Take, for example, the roofing company I worked for in the first couple years of marriage. Bubba was the owner, entrepreneur and general manager. The foreman, Roger, was a manager and laborer. He took the work orders from Bubba and made it happen on the job site. Three of us were laborers who did most of the actual work, but that does not mean we deserved equal compensation with the bosses.

Catholic social teaching teaches that distributive justice demands the worker be paid in proportion to the contribution made to society. In our situation Bubba made the greatest contribution to the team because without his willingness to take on the risk of business ownership and his work as general manager, none of us would have had the opportunity to earn a risk-free paycheck. The entire success of the business fell on his shoulders. Business ownership requires a vast amount of mental work, networking, management and foresight. Aquinas affirms that those who take greater risk in business ought to be compensated with greater reward for success.

Similarly, a foreman is justly paid more than the laborers because he has more responsibility and greater skill which can be taught to less skilled laborers like myself. It takes a crew to roof a house efficiently.


The Future of Catholic Tradesman

There are three reasons why more Catholic youth should be pursuing a profession in the trades with the intention of owning or managing such a business in the future.

First, the trades, unlike some other small business opportunities, are in high demand and therefore present a lucrative income opportunity — especially for owners and managers — which should motivate men wanting to raise a family. It doesn’t take much to stand out as a desirable tradesman in our current society and because of demand, as one of my former employers explained it, “You can get paid to learn.”

Second, we desperately need Catholic entrepreneurs and managers in the marketplace. Part of the problem with modern culture is that too many entrepreneurs are focused on entertainment prospects or tech-utopian, futuristic ventures that skew a Christian vision of reality. We need virtuous entrepreneurs to shape culture, employ family providers and provide customers with valuable goods and services. Everyone needs a dependable plumber, electrician, roofer and carpenter. The trades meet a very practical need for households.

Third, Catholic business owners in the trades will attract good Christian employees to their companies. Most people care more about the company culture than their paycheck. So, if one is hesitant to begin a career in the trades and work his way up because he is worried about having to hire drug addicts and other unreliable workers to compile his crew, he can learn to be the kind of business leader that attracts good reliable workers to his business. It’s not that hard if one is dedicated to growing in the basic virtues of honesty, integrity, follow-through and authentic service. A good reputation will attract dependable crewmembers.

Sts. Josemaría Escrivá and John Paul II called for laymen to enter the public forum and do business. Businesses serve families and shape culture. Are you young and eager? Try the trades.