Parents, let your kids screw stuff and get their hands dirty

TODAY featured a speech by Acting Minister Ong Ye Kung. Acting Minister Ong said “Given economic realities today, the distinction between vocational training and academic tracks is becoming less meaningful. Traditional craftsmen need knowledge to distinguish their work and academics need hands-on skills to excel. And at the highest levels, it is not possible, or no longer meaningful, to distinguish the two.”

Acting Minister Ong cited two examples – Steve Jobs and JK Rowling. I completely agree with that. Because I have personally witnessed this blurring of lines between vocation and academics. The latest experience was just yesterday. A friend, PC, needed some help. He makes a business out of being a handyman for companies. One of his clients had a problem with their doors and toilets. PC needed an extra pair of hands to help. Since I was (relatively) free, and because PC is a great friend of mine, I offered to help him.

Now before you scoff at the idea of fixing doors and toilets, let me give you a bit of a background of PC. PC graduated many decades ago from the University of Iowa with degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science and Mathematics. About a decade ago, he did his MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He used to run a very successful furniture-making business. He has given (yes, you read it right, given) the business away. Now he is semi-retired. But because he gets bored doing nothing, he still does some work. And that includes fixing doors and toilets.

I once asked PC how much he earns being a handyman. He said that he can make on average $10,000 a month. Yes. That’s right. $10,000 a month. Let that sink in a little.

How does he do it? By blurring the lines of vocation and academics.

When I was helping PC yesterday, he explained to me the thinking behind designing a toilet bowl. He talked about the plumbing, the piping, the materials used. He mentioned things like why copper is used here and plastic there, why if you don’t put some rubber (or was it epoxy) thing here, the porcelain of the toilet bowl will crack over time, why you can cut that rubber thing and it’ll still fit nicely eventually because rubber hydrolyses and expands.

We then went to fix some doors. He then went on to explain why the person who installed the doors did a botched up job that led to all the problems. It’s the frame they used, the type of screws they used and the way the screws were screwed in. Apparently, if the contractor had wanted to use screws, he should have drilled a hole in the frame using a carbide drill bit first, which would melt a bit of the aluminium frame to provide a thicker layer of material for more threads for the screw to hold on to. Alternatively, the contractor should have used rivets. Otherwise the forces on the door will rip the hinge off (which was what PC was called in to fix). PC eventually went with using rivets.

He also explained why he used stainless steel rivets for one door, but aluminium rivets for another. Apparently the stainless steel rivets are harder to use, more expensive, but are stronger, so are suitable for the door that has more people opening and closing. Aluminium rivets are softer, doesn’t hold as tightly, but are less expensive and easier to use, so are appropriate for the door that has less people opening and closing it.  He also mentioned that in some cases, there may be a need to use stainless steel screws that have been quenched. Those screws are incredibly hard and tough, but have to be careful, because if there’s anything that stops their rotation, then the torsional forces (yes he used that term) will cause the screw to break apart (because the quenching process makes the screw lose its ductility).

I probably caught less than 20% of what he said. And may have misrepresented some of what he said.

One thing is for certain. Because of his extensive knowledge as well as his training as an engineer, he is able to fix a lot more things than most handyman. For example, he fixed the toilet that had been leaking terribly for the last few months even after numerous other handymen were called in to fix it. And that is why he’s able to command a higher price and get such a healthy income. Not only that, his clients are always relieved beyond words to see him.

His vocational skills was also instrumental when he was running his business. Too many examples to go into details, but when you run a furniture-making business, you definitely need to be really good at some vocational skills.

My experience with PC yesterday confirmed my belief that what Acting Minister Ong said is right. It also confirmed that the “advice” I gave to a friend’s aunt was right too – even for trades that traditionally seem to be heavy on vocational skills, academics are important and useful to set you above your competitors.

So. Parents. Let your children get their hands dirty. Don’t just let them bury their heads in books. Let them tinker with things. Make it a habit for them to clean the house, and their school, and even your housing estate. That will make them a whole lot more fit to survive and thrive in the future economy.

[Featured Image: Photo by Daryl Kang from TODAY.]

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