Iguanas and Skilled Trades

It was 1990 and I was sitting in a bar in the jungles of Belize near the border with Guatemala. Rain forest preservation was a hot topic even 22 years ago and the common mantra among us self-righteous enviro-conscious youth at the time was that farmers needed to move to sustainable farming.

Iguanas, actually.

It turns out that iguanas can be harvested in a rain forest and produce more pounds of meat per hectare than cattle on clear-cut and razed land. Bio-diversity survives, erosion is averted, the forest remains, more meat is harvested. Win-win. Or so you’d think. Sure we’d have to adjust to eating iguana steaks, which would take some considerable marketing.

But in the bar in Belize I learned that something else was at play. Something much harder to fight than even changing farming practices and convincing the public to eat a lizard. Status. As I talked with locals in Belize and listened into their conversations, I became aware that cattle ranching in Central and South America is not just farming, or a business. It is status. Being a cattle farmer is akin to being a doctor or lawyer in North America. Something that bestows status and honour on the family.

And that brings us to the skilled trades in the developed world. This morning I heard on the radio yet again that there is a chronic shortage of skilled trades people, and that you can expect to earn six figures as a skilled tradesperson. Far more, I might add, than a normal B.A. will earn you. As a parent with kids in school, I have heard lots of parents nod sagely about the value of the skilled trades, and then say something along the lines of:

Skilled Trades are great and more kids should be going into them. But not my kid. He needs to go to University.

Here’s the rub. Parents can logically agree that skilled trades are valuable, just as I’m sure farmers in the amazon rain forest would agree with you that it would make more sense to raise iguanas in the rain forest than chop it down and graze cattle. But that is hypothetical. In the practical, here and now, among middle-class parents, their children are going to University. Just as that block of forest is being cut down to since the farmers are cattle farmers, damnit. And no one is taking that away from them.

The kids have bought in as well. I ran into a grade 12 student recently that I’ve known for years. Highly intelligent and very technically minded, with an interest in computer science. A geek in the most positive sense of the word. He was planning for after high school and had decided that a community college computer science course was more suited to what he wanted to do than a computer science B.Sc. His response: go to University to get a B.A. in psychology instead.

We can talk all we want about the value of the skilled trades, or iguana meat, or some great new business idea. These are undoubtedly valuable things that we should strive for. But we have to acknowledge our own biases and prejudices and realize that logic is not enough and we need more than just marketing and a solid business plan. We need to understand the social statuses and biases at play and work to overcome them.

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