Never Stop Driving #94: Eclipsed

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Last Monday, two friends and I headed south from Ann Arbor to intersect with the solar eclipse path of totality, which cut across northwest Ohio. This was a last-minute trip so once we freed ourselves from work commitments, we only had about two hours to make the 70-mile trek. That’d be easy on a normal day, but the major highways were already clogged. Time for the backroads.

Southern Michigan is so flat that the rural roads, many of which are gravel, are laid out in a grid. I figured they would be lightly traveled so we headed south on the first unpaved road we encountered. When it ended, we jogged west until we hit another dirt road going south. We rolled down the windows to enjoy the warm air and aromas from the surrounding farm fields, which had that early-spring green sheen. Delightful. Our haphazard route was slow, but we didn’t worry about missing the total eclipse; the point was our spontaneous journey, not the destination. (Better to be moving than stuck in traffic, says the bloke who writes a column called “Never Stop Driving.”) We’d get as far south as possible, see what we could see, and just enjoy this mini adventure during a workday. It was like playing hooky (if you’re too young to know what that means, look it up).

With just minutes to spare, we joined some 30 other cars in a dirt parking lot in Liberty Center, Ohio (population: 1100). The glow of the full eclipse was moving as was the partial darkness that traveled like a wave over the countryside. The thing that really caught my eye, however, was a vintage military truck parked nearby with a roof-mounted generator and 20-foot antenna.

Military truck bug out vehicle front three quarter
This M109 was converted to be the ultimate survival rig.Larry Webster

The owner explained that his green M109 truck and its two generators could run on cooking oil, diesel, used motor oil, and—I think he said—kerosene. The huge antenna was driven skyward via air pressure supplied by an onboard compressor he installed along with many other DIY modifications. The thing had A/C, a fridge, a stove, a bed, and 10 wheels mounted on three axles. He’d set up in the lot that morning, because the local police and emergency responders, who were worried that the crowds uploading eclipse photos and videos would clog cellular signals, deployed a network of radio operators like him to ensure communication.

Impressive, right? I joked that if the proverbial s&^% hit the fan, I would come groveling. That dude knew how to do things, to build things. Which reminded me of our ongoing shortage of folks like him.

I’ve written many times about the gap between the need for skilled tradespeople and the supply, a situation brought into focus by my ongoing effort to bring a $25,000 Ferrari back to life. I’ve struggled to find experienced and willing craftspeople to do things like paint and interior work. The tide, however, may be turning.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that vocational school enrollment is surging. One 20-something interviewed for the article trained to be a welder instead of going to college, saying that he didn’t want to follow the lives of his parents, who stare at screens all day. More and more teenagers, the WSJ reporter observed, see burgeoning AI, mass corporate layoffs, and student debt as signs that a physical skill could be a recession-proof job.

Well used hand tools in work space
Getty Images/Cavan Images

The WSJ article follows an earlier one that described how a Maine lobster town fought to bring shop classes back to the local high school. I am emphatically in favor of this. Even if students don’t find a career in shop class, they’ll gain useful, lifetime skills. Don’t we all need to know how to do things? When are we, as a society, going to chuck the whole white collar/blue collar distinctions and career paths?

This is personal, and not just because I want to get my old Ferrari back on the road. I was steered away from high-school shop classes simply because I had good grades, even though I had a small business repairing lawnmowers. I loved cars and mechanical things, so I went to an engineering college only to learn that engineering had morphed into a desk job. I hated it, but we’ve all been told, “you have to have a degree” so I stuck it out and spent the first decade of my adult life paying off the loans.

You might be thinking, doesn’t this guy Webster have a dream gig typing about cars in front of a screen? Admittedly, America’s imperfect educational and vocational training systems did just fine by me in the long term. Since I work on my own cars, however, I long ago learned that what I enjoy as a hobby is actually hard work, which makes me respect the folks who do it for a living all the more. I also spent a sweltering summer mixing cement in Newark, New Jersey, so I know the risk of unduly romanticizing physical labor. We do, however, need to get rid of the stigma that the trades are a consolation path for those who don’t go to a four-year college.

Thanks for reading!


P.S.: Your feedback is very welcome. Comment below!

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    We need genuine craftsmen and craftswomen. One of my pet peeves is going to a ‘professional’ because i didn’t have the correct tool or the experience only to be disappointed at the resulting job. Too many a time I redid the work I paid a ‘professional’ to do with a much better result.

    Can not count the number of times this exact thing has happened to me. Ending up not only disappointed but with remorse for the monies paid to the “professionals”. Perhaps I just always want it done the way I would of in the 1st place, aka the correct way.

    Larry… Amen. As a mechanical engineer with an MBA, I can fully confirm that
    A. Engineering is a desk job, and if you get an MBA then they REALLY think you want a desk job.
    B. Being a skilled trade person is REAL work. I did 13 weeks as a fuel injection, wiring, electrical troubleshooting guy at a hot rod shop last year. Interesting job most days but also should have been a reality TV show…the drama is REAL. 😎
    C. I’m happily back to the corporate world again, and can enjoy my part time hack mechanic skills on my own projects. Much more fun than doing it for a (poor) living.
    D. If you want to ruin a hobby, do it as a full time job.

    Good luck with your REAL Dino, I have a friend build a Faux-rari Dino using a kit and a Toyota MR2. He is also struggling…so join the club!

    We can only hope that the mindset that was so hammered on us that to be anything or anybody you had to have a degree. I did not have one as it was just not in the cards. I slacked off in high school and had other priorities, but through hard work and a lot of common sense was able to excel in some different and diversify fields that enabled me to retire at 55.

    I do hope that this generation has the desire to make things, fix things, build things. Solve problems that we could not solve. When you think about JFK in the early sixties proclaimed that we would put a man on the moon by the end of that decade was mind blowing. This younger generation can and will do great things if they dream as JFK did and most importantly do it.

    The difference is, after JFK’s announcement, we realized engineers couldn’t build rockets anymore and we changed engineering by expanding engineering technology to the BS level — because it still takes a lot of training to build a rocket. You can argue — pro and con — whether building a rocket that has never been built before, requires a college degree. But that’s not the point: we changed the way engineering was taught to increase the chance of success. The current shift toward the trades seems to be more about job security and not about dreaming bigger and doing bigger. So, I worry about the desire to make things, to fix things, to build things….

    However, doing is power. As we all here agree, making things with your hands is infectious. I really hope this trend toward the trades is a re-birth — or causes a re-birth — of making, fixing and building.

    I have mixed feelings about the degree vs trade school thing. I too slacked off in high school and ended up working many years as a Diesel mechanic… Then I went to college and got an engineering degree, which I should have done right after high school. The money I made in the trades is a fraction of what I make now, and I can do this job as long as I want. I would have pretty much been used up in my 50s if I stayed in the trades

    What I would say is this – if you have the academics and are interested in a degree field WITH OPENINGS – get the degree. Otherwise, save yourself 5- to 6-figure debt and go for the trades. Or do what I did and try them both

    Mike Rowe, Dirty Jobs, has a foundation, that gives $1 million in scholarships twice a year, for trade schools
    In a recent interview he says that welders can make six figures. My local mechanic has kept my collector cars on the road for several years. Check out Rowe’s website for more info.

    I totally agree. Hook up with his foundation. Send kids his way, encourage the trades any way possible. Our country needs a solid foundation of doers- mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, etc. not everyone is cut out for college.

    His work ethic pledge is worth reading. Every kid granted one of his scholarships signs it. I’m thrilled to see some else on the trades bandwagon.

    The lack of people with skilled hands and mechanical ability is very bad right now. My buddy has had a hard time one finding people that know what they are doing and then two that will show up everyday even with good pay.

    My son did take the Accounting path he started out at a very high wage and has a very good job. But he said it is boring. I said it is Accounting.

    Skilled labor is the way to go today. My father in law literally may be one of the top welders in the country. He was making six figures with what he did. He as welding on jobs that could take a continuous weld for over an hour on stainless and if he made a mistake it could be a $50K mistake. He retired and still went back over 5 years to help as they never could replace him. He tried to train others but they never stayed.

    Lack of skill and work ethic is a real problem in this country. The smart kids will prosper and the foolish will complain.

    One thing to keep in mind. I was all about working on cars growing up. That was what I was going to do. I did get a business degree along with my automotive training. At that time I heard my buddies father say how tired he was working on cars. He was getting older and his body took a beating with the work. He told us if he was our age he would look for something else.

    Well it did work out for me in this way. I wrenched while I was younger but got an opportunity to work in the performance industry. It took a good mechanical knowledge to get in the door and I have been able to take the skills I have and apply them to a job now where I am not getting dirty or dripped on. I still will wrench on cars and keep up with training. If I had to I could go back wrenching today if needed. But now I deal with QA on parts and other systems.

    So these skills can serve you well when young and can lead to what to me is a dream job. Sure I spend time behind a computer now but I have gotten to meet most of the big players in Racing and the Performance parts industry. I have been sent out to drive stock cars on the clock. Take a million dollar street rod for a drive around Hot August Nights. Work with race teams and racers I followed from a young age. Even stand on the starting line at NHRA events. That is just a part of it.

    If you want to work getting as skill is great and as you age that experience can be applied to more than just turning wrenches. Many of the people I worked at where I am now are now working in development at companies like Holley and other large MFGs.

    Skills to me are like a major collage degree and can be leveraged if you are smart and good at what you do. But you have to love what you do to make it worthwhile.

    Some of the smartest people I was around when growing up were engineers and mechanics. I value both highly yet today.

    One engineer I grew up around worked for Hoover Sweepers. He was their lead project engineer. He was the first influence on me for taking things apart and putting them together. He even gave me recordings of F1 cars of the 60’s so I could learn what engine was what by sound.

    Later my neighbors were racers and I worked with them on a stock car at a very young age. They taught me much on wrenching and racing. I could change a pumpkin in a 9″ ford rear at 11 years old. My pay was going to races on weekends with them. It was fun being out till 3 AM without mom and dad at the races.

    My father saw I was learning and trusted the people I was with and it got me on the path to where I am today. Thanks to dad all this happened.

    I just wish I learned to paint.

    What a great career path, you did it right! Never too late to learn how to paint! I’m learning on my car right now. Just like paint society says “it’s only paint”.

    It was pure Gods grace how it worked out as I never planned it.

    I have been on my dream job for 30 years now and the reason I ended up there was all an accident.

    I was doing time working for a exhibit company and we did a number of tire company accounts. We would do a lot of advertising and displays for SEMA etc. It was a fun job but no real money.

    I got married and was able to get a job making Steam Vacs for Hoover. What a boring job but good money. I got laid off as union job and they could bump you. I was told they would bring me back but like 6 months. New house new wife etc. I needed a job.

    I applied where I am at and while few got in I was offered the job on the spot. Starting would require nights and weekends but I worked thought it and it has been a blast.

    I still wear my scars but I have learned and like to share with others mechanical ability can apply to many jobs in various ways.

    The knowledge you gain can be used later in jobs that may be easier on you as you age,

    Thanks Larry. Good story and topic.

    Trouble today is just work ethic in general. So many kids don’t want to show up or be on time.

    We lost a guy married and two kids because he called off all the time because he got a new video game.

    I told my son on his first job show every day and on time. Even if you do a half ass job it is half better than those who did not come in. I had a teacher tell me that and iy still holds true todays

    As Roger Penske said “effors equal results”.

    The college scam is about to run its course. I started college at Texas Christian University in 1968. The tuition was $40/semester hour, so 15 hours cost me about $700, with books and fees. I worked my way through college and graduated with zero debt with a business degree. My first job paid $10,800 ($900/month) and I could live on that. My first new car was a ‘71 914, which cost $3,595, and my payment was $112. Today, the tuition at TCU is +$65,000/yr. Many of the degrees now offered are useless/worthless/junk. I guess parents don’t mind paying because a student certainly cannot work their way through a private college and graduate without debt.

    The GI bill got me through Michigan State – at $3600 a year, in 1970. My sons went to WPI, at about $35K per year. Their sons will probably be paying north of $100K. But at least they’ll probably be getting engineering degrees, like their fathers got. And I intend for them to have grandpa’s tools to use and learn.

    So true! I always liked working with my hands or breaking things, lol, with my hands as a kid. In high school I painted and did lightweight carpentry jobs.
    After I graduated from high school, I went to college at a JC about three-quarter time and worked installing windows in new apartment buildings. Then I started framing buildings while also going to college. I was on track to graduate with a computer science degree when as a senior, I decided I could not sit in an office, and I was already making decent money doing what I liked.
    Construction was a good life for me. It allowed me to contribute to society and build a lot of things I was proud of. It also allowed me to retire at a fairly early age and now do what I really want to do, tinker with my cars.
    I hope more kids to go to shop classes and realize that working with your hands can be a very rewarding career.

    My parent were both laborers— they wanted one their kids to go to college to have a “better” life. I’m highly paid in a professional role. I’ve been laid off 4 times. Don’t be fooled that those craft labor folks don’t have job stress or face difficulty. Better is an aspiration not an absoute.

    I don’t wish I’d been a farmer or a welder or a mechanic. But certainly appreciate those that have skills in craft labor.

    I am a DiYer in everything. Learn how was the mantra my dad instilled. But that is not substitute for truely skilled people. And we need way more of them.

    Our younger son was a good student in high school, but we didn’t see him as “college material” so we steered him toward technical college. After his first week of school he called home and said, “This is the first time I’ve ever liked school.” It was then that my wife and I realized that the three of us had made the right decision regarding his future career path.

    Fast forward twenty years and he is a senior developmental technician with a major power sports manufacturer here in Minnesota. He “bends wrenches” on a daily basis and gets to test products to their breaking point and then work with engineers to figure out how to make things better. For those of us who don’t mind a little dirt under our fingernails, it’s an absolute dream job and he loves it.

    That being said, kudos to the high schools still offering shop classes. Now we need to get high school guidance counselors steering more students toward vocational training after high school. We’re always going to need good people out there doing the things we can’t do and fixing the things we can’t fix.

    I was blessed by coming from “blue collar” stock, my father a master plumber, grandfather a millwright, my uncle a master machinist.
    I inherited or was genetically predisposed to being “ mechanically inclined”. I became fascinated with electronics and motor mechanics at a very young age and started on my technical career path at thirteen years of age. After sixty five years in the business, half of it self employed, I will say that I have had a successful career.
    Another benefit to having “ skills” is that I have never had to hire other manually skilled trades to do repairs or renovations to plumbing, electrical, carpentry jobs around the homes I have owned.
    Throughout my life, starting at seven years, cars have fascinated me and repairing and modifying have been a rewarding hobby.
    It would be a step forward for society to go back to “ shop classes” at secondary school along with some focus on life skills such as managing credit, mortgages, etc.

    Your life path started much as mine did. Good grades, directed into engineering despite my interest in things mechanical. I spent some time doing construction inspection, and loved that. But soon I was in front of a computer screen where I remained for nearly forty years. Life and adult responsibilities got in the way of changing careers. These days, as I read articles in publications like Classic Car, I am convinced I would have been happier in a car restoration business. But my parents would have never supported a request to go to a car restoration technical school. The degree was everything.
    This generation, my older son got that accounting degree but almost immediately decided desks were not for him. He took a step back into an electrician apprenticeship and is now a journeyman making more than he would be making as a young accountant, and is much happier for the change. He gets to play in the dirt every day.
    We as parents need to do a much better job of recognizing what our kids really want and supporting those directions. They can’t live our life, or the life we’d like to plan for them. Not possible.

    Very much the same situation in the U.K. Trade looked down on compared to academia. In our case I believe it’s because we have a class system based on an unelected ruling class i.e. the monarchy not noted for getting their hands dirty.

    As someone fascinated by cars and all things mechanical, technical, and worthy of restoring, I very much know and enjoyed your comments, personal and otherwise, about learning restoration skills, hard work, and respect for tradesmen. (Plus women of course.) I am retired, 75, fixed income, and “on the fence” to restore my1956, 190 Ponton. Trade Schools are considered. Yet, guys I know have had kids steal their car parts, etc. Your articles are appreciated. BTW, I have a 1989, 300SE daily driver, 1995 Town Car, 1998 Jaguar XJ8, and my 1988 truck, purchased new. I have to weld a frame section on the truck. The Jag turns over well, no start. TC has a parasitic draw, nobody can find. Life is good! Be well, and yes, I will keep on driving!! Oh, as a kid, I helped a tiny company that restored cars, selling parts as well. Springfield, MA is the only former home of Rolls Royce production in America. I wanted one. Back at the little shop, I could not believe my luck to help sand the paint on, and to be able to sit exactly where General George Patton sat in the Cadillac Series 75, during that deadly accident.

    Larry, as the alumnus of a catholic college prep high school, I too was discouraged from persuing an automotive or trade related career path. Instead I was counseled to “choose a major and start looking at 4 year colleges” as a young sophomore. While I have maintained my love of shade tree mechanics, I often wonder what may have been if I was encouraged to pursue my passion for all things mechanical.

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