COLUMN: Barb Gustafson — March 5, 2014

Barb Gustafson
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Barb Gustafson

A list making the rounds on Facebook is titled “signs you grew up on a farm.” Among the items: you’re devoted to either red or green tractors as much as are you are devoted to a football team; you can drive standard; you fear the words “Cows are out.”

My favourite from the list is that you still remember the exact time your school bus arrived in the morning. Absolutely. As a farm kid, that was engrained in your memory. A close second is that when you give directions, you use landmarks, not street names. And, the landmark you reference may not even exist anymore. “Turn at the corner where the church used to be.” Or, the landmark has changed names or ownership. “It’s over by the old Smith place” – and Smiths left 40 years ago. One that I would add to the list is the ability to tell which way is north. Even in a city, a farmer will still know north from south, and just be confused if you say go right or left. I’ve lost that ability, but true farmers seem to hold on to that.

Another sign that you grew up on a farm: you probably know about work.

I’ve been thinking a lot about work lately. Not in the “what’s going on at the office this week” kind of thinking about work, although that’s always on my mind, too, but thinking about work in the larger sense. What constitutes work these days? What value do we put on various kinds of work?

If you grew up on a farm, you probably have a firsthand understanding of work in the sense of hard, physical labour. You threw bales onto a wagon, fed livestock, or cleaned a chicken coop. At the end of the day, you were tired and hungry, but something had been accomplished.

With modern mechanization, there is less of this kind of work, even on a farm. There are fewer people on the farms, too. The world, including Saskatchewan, has become urbanized and what we call work today is more often sitting at a desk or in a meeting than lifting and moving things. At the end of the day, you may be mentally tired, but you often wonder what was accomplished.

That’s the kind of work, however, that as Canadians we steer our children toward. The statistics for Canadian postsecondary education show that we have increasingly followed the path of university education rather than trades or vocational training. One statistic presented to a House of Commons committee showed 1.14 million university graduates in the social sciences and humanities from 2000 to 2011. In the same time period, Canada certified only 26,000 plumbers and 15,000 welders. And the result of this gap? We have liberal arts grads that are underemployed at a coffee shop, and you can’t get a plumber when you need one.

I’m not arguing against university; I have great respect for the value of a liberal arts degree to help people develop into thoughtful, educated citizens. We need that. What I am arguing against is a prejudice against jobs like plumbing, welding, or other gritty, physical work. Clearly, we need people trained for these jobs, too.

It’s an age-old problem, going back to the times of Greek slaves and servants doing the dirty jobs while the philosopher kings could sit and think. As greater opportunity for all people unfolded, given the choice, people chose the less-strenuous work. Parents naturally want a better life for their children, and when the doors of universities opened so that more than just the wealthy sons could attend, the path to professional work was the one taken. Technology and globalization have just accelerated the change.

Saskatchewan has seen its own version of this phenomenon. We’ve educated lots of people at our universities, but we’ve also relied on farm kids to take on the jobs that need hard work (and the two paths do overlap). Businesses loved to hire young people from the farm, because they could predict a strong work ethic, and a good measure of basic mechanical/construction know how, would come with them. Farm kids could be counted on to become the workers and tradespeople needed to keep the physical side of our society going. Today, with fewer farm families, there are fewer farm kids. Coupled with the trend toward clean, safe jobs, there are fewer people trained and ready when we need something fixed. As one author I read lately said, the trouble with having things made in China is that, when they break down, the person who built it is still in China. We need someone down the street, not half a world away, to fix our car or kitchen sink.

We can’t go back in time, but we can carry forward what was right about the past. Personally, I’m not in favour of doing without my modern conveniences, but I am in favour of honouring some of the old-fashioned values, including the value of work. It shouldn’t require firsthand experience on a farm or elsewhere to understand what it is to take pride in doing a job well, and how physical work is every bit as valuable, if not more so, than what we consider mental work. Whether you’re at a desk typing words on a computer, or hammering nails, or pumping gas, or pouring coffee, work has value, in its own right.

Barb Gustafson is a lifelong resident of Prince Albert and a former managing editor and publisher of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.

Organizations: House of Commons, Prince Albert

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Canada, China

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