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Rewired: An Electrician Reflects on How Her Work Has Changed Her Thinking and Character

With good union training, wages and benefits, Cathy Nichols, a single mother, was able to provide for herself and her son without fear of impoverishment or medical calamity.

Electrician Cathy Nichols told me recently that both her life and her way of thinking about the world had been changed through the use of her tools. The “life” part is clear. With good union training, wages and benefits, Nichols, a single mother, was able to provide for herself and her son without fear of impoverishment or medical calamity. But what intrigued me was the way she talked about how the work that she did – which she describes as “being mechanical” – changed her thinking and even her personality.

In language that may seem cryptic to those not involved in manual or trades work, Nichols, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11, described how working in her trade has “shifted” the way her brain works. Gesturing with her hands as if spinning a Rubik’s cube, she spoke of how once she became an electrician she found herself “always wanting to look at everything from many different angles instead of seeing things tunnel visioned.”

During a conversation at her job site, a solar electric field in Lancaster, she said, “Solving puzzles is being able to trace a problem back to its source.” Nichols added that she became more flexible in her relationships, more open to multiple understandings of another person’s behavior, more emotionally secure and less quick to judge.

How does the competent use of tools lead to positive shifts in character? Matthew Crawford, in his book Shop Class as Soul Craft, tries to answer that question. For Crawford, practical know-how requires submitting oneself to the objective standards of the material world, undermining the narcissist’s and the blowhard’s “easy fantasy of mastery.” Trades work is a lived experience that sharpens the ability to be attentive, to recognize significant patterns and to respect the value and practice of a journeyman’s skill.

Nichols talks about her own engagement with electrical tools and the rigors of her work in a personal and philosophical way. “Through the electrical trade you realize the world is made up of a lot of things and you are not the center of attention. The truth is not necessarily whatever you initially think it is.”

Some scholars regard talk of craft identity in a routinized world as somewhat romantic. The historian Jackson Lears (No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920) explored how psychologically unsettling the growth of corporate industrialism was to an anxious American elite at the turn of the 20th century. Unsure of their own “authenticity,” the professional classes initiated an “anti-modernist” reaction culminating in the embrace of craft ideologies, spiritualist fads, shallow communalism and a “vision of a self in endless development.” In some ways they ushered in the still-thriving therapeutic consumer culture.

It’s important, then, to keep in mind the ways in which construction workers today – even unionized ones – are driven forward by the unforgiving logic of efficiency and time management. How much craft and attentiveness can an electrician give to a task if, faced with nonunion competitors, contractors are continually compelled to ask their workers to pick up the pace? The “creative self” is often severely constrained on construction sites.

Despite the pressures of the time clock – Nichols would prefer to move more deliberately and focus on quality – she understands the deeper implications of her work. “When I started being mechanical, I became more humble. You find out you don’t know everything and that more possibilities exist for understanding problems.” The “temporary suspension of the desire for closure,” as writer Richard Sennett has pointed out, allows for dwelling in uncertainty long enough to deepen a person’s judgment.

Nichols, a foreman, acknowledges that her work has been difficult at times. The days I visited her, the temperature was 105 degrees. “It has not been easy, I’m not going to lie. It was blood, sweat, and tears,” she said, reflecting on her 25 years in the trade. But Nichols says it was worth it, allowing her to develop the confidence to fix anything that breaks in her home – and, thanks to the economic security of her profession, build relationships based on enjoyment rather than fear.

The meticulous nature of her work has even provided a solid foundation for sifting through the rhetoric and bombast of an overheated political season. “I’m able to weigh things out a little bit more. I’m definitely less vulnerable to being manipulated. Does that make sense?”

It not only makes sense, it also opens up a more generous way of looking at “trades work” and its place in the so-called “knowledge economy.” The drama of cognitive development involves the brain, the body and objects in the material world. Cathy Nichols has learned through difficult work and cultivated patience that her mind, her hands and her character are joined, a conjunction that has provided her a profound understanding of who she is.