The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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What are my skills worth?

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There is a lot of debate lately concerning the wages that fast-food workers are earning in the United States. While I’m not exactly sure what a fast food worker makes, I believe it is generally between $9.00-$11.00 per hour. Some cities have passed legislation raising the hourly pay of fast-food workers to a minimum of $15.00 per hour, and there is talk of a proposal to make this legislation go nationwide. While I’m all for every person with a job earning a fair wage, I do have some issues with this.

Firstly, I really have no feelings one way or the other on a personal level when it comes to these “demands”. Many of the opponents feel that because fast-food labor is generally unskilled, they shouldn’t expect to make more than they currently do. Proponents counter that the current wage is below poverty standards, and that no person who works a full time job should be in poverty. I agree somewhat with both arguments, and when I look at this “person to person” how could I be upset that somebody wants to get paid more money? We all want that for the most part, don’t we?

But I do have an issue with this legislation. I am an electrician. While I can’t say that I know how it works everywhere, I know that in many parts of the U.S. a licensed electrician is required to have 66 credit hours of schooling, or roughly 900 hours. An electrician is also required to attend at least 32 hours of additional schooling each year. The initial costs of schooling can range from $7000 to $12,000 depending on where you are located, and the yearly fees often run upwards of $600. An ICC code examination costs approximately $500, and is required every 3 years. An electrician also must own and maintain a specialized tool kit which can easily cost $3000 or more, as well as safety equipment, ladders, clothing, and other gear. Also, most electricians do not get paid holidays, health insurance, paid vacation, sick days, or retirement benefits. Those things come out of your own pocket. Another thing, an electrician is required to carry tradesman liability insurance. And to top it all off, many municipalities require you to pay a licensing fee just to perform work there, which can cost anywhere from $100 to $1000 dollars, and that license must be renewed every year. Today, the average electrician starts off at around $13.00 per hour.

Before I go on, there is a myth that electricians make upwards of $50.00 per hour. Well, you may bill at that, but when you factor in everything I listed above, including the fact that you are paying your own health insurance, trade insurance, vehicle insurance (which is also much higher for a commercial vehicle), fuel costs to and from the job, equipment, and a dozen other things, that “$50 per hour” tops off at less than half of that, and then you pay taxes on it. That, my friends, is why I no longer work in the field anymore.

Anyway, my gripe is not with fast food workers wanting and getting $15 per hour, it is with the nature of the building trades. If I’m an 18 year old kid looking to get myself a trade, or possibly a 22 year old just out of the service looking to start a new career, why would I go through all of that hassle when I can just go to my local Wendy’s, or McDonald’s, or wherever, and make the same money with none of the time, expense, or training needed to be a tradesman? Because I like working with my hands? That may be part of it. Most people who willingly seek out a job in the building trades do so because they like the nature of the work, but they also do it because they know that they will make more money than you would make at the local fast food joint, at least until now.

So is it really worth it anymore to become an electrician, or carpenter, or plumber, or HVAC tech, or cabinet maker? Speaking for myself, I can guaran-damn-tee you that it’s much easier slinging French fries than it is working on a construction site where there is a very real possibility that you can be seriously injured every time you strap on your tool belt and walk past that cyclone fence. Trades work is physically intensive, technically demanding, and downright dangerous when it comes down to it. It many major cities, and pretty soon all over the country, a person can walk into a McDonald’s and earn $15 per hour. You need no specialized training, no specialized equipment, no big out layout of cash for schooling, and licenses, and insurance, and safety gear. You don’t have to worry about falling from a ladder, or getting zapped by 600 volts, or reading blueprints and technical drawings, or ordering special parts that can make or break a job. You only need to be able to press a button with a photo of a BigMac on it. I read somewhere that the average fast-food employee receives an average of 4 hours of training! That’s not 4 hours per week, or month, or year; that’s 4 hours, total…

So, once again I speak only for myself, but the next time a kid asks me if he should become an electrician, I’m going to strongly encourage him to put on a shirt and tie, go fill out a job application at the local fast food joint, and learn how to clearly say, “would you like fries with that?”

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28 Comments

  1. Consider that when the lowest level wage goes up so do all of the ones above it. Where I live a person with a skill can ask for a good deal more than minimum and get it. All those folks pushing for a living wage have no idea how economics work and that all those extra costs will come to them. Hambergers and fries will become more expensive. The worker willl have gained nothing. Entry level is just that, entry level where you learn to work. Once you have learned if you have any drive you get training, education and or experience and move up. My two cents worth.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think there was a time when the minimum wage pushed up the wage of skilled workers, but I feel that it is no longer the case, at least not to the extent that it was years ago. I live in a large metropolitan area. An unskilled electrician’s helper will generally start off at $9 per hour, somebody with schooling can get as high as $14. If you’re an 18 or 19 year old kid, and you can make far more than that just by flipping burgers, where is the incentive to even get into the trades, where it often takes years of training and expense (and a lot of grunt work) until you finally start making a decent living.
      I’m not trying to begrudge the fast-food workers a pay check. They can ask for (and apparently receive) whatever they like. I just don’t see the federal government stepping in like they did and coming to bat for trades people. And that to me spells a lot of trouble down the road, because 20 years from now when my age bracket is retiring there will be far fewer skilled and experienced people to take their place. At least that is my guess.
      Thanks
      Bill

      • gilgaron says:

        But if no one goes into trades because they can sling burgers for the same wage, then supply of tradesmen decreases and they can charge more. This is why it is argued that ultimately increasing minimum wage only increases inflation. (disclaimer: I am not an economist)

      • billlattpa says:

        That may happen. But as of right now the pay of skilled tradesmen has been in decline for more than 30 years and the trend is for that to continue. There are a lot of factors involved that have nothing to do with fast food restaurants.
        Once again, I have no issues with what is happening. We all have the right to ask for whatever we think we’re worth. My concern is not with what people at Burger King will soon be making, but with the legislation behind it. Are the same people responsible for it going to go to bat for the trades? Not to disrespect anybody working at a fast-food joint (my mom works at one) but nobody on earth is going to tell me that a fast food worker is worth more than a skilled tradesman. But the fact of the matter is that if this legislation goes through that is exactly what will happen. I just hope you are correct and the pay checks of the skilled trades does rise. But the number of skilled tradesman has been in decline for years, so that should mean that the cost of their services should increase, but the numbers show that hasn’t happened either.
        Thanks.
        Bill

  2. Kinderhook88 says:

    This is why I’m seriously considering letting my contractor’s license expire. I make little more than minimum wage myself, and I worry more and more about hurting myself. I’m not sure fast food is for me, but perhaps a nice quiet bookstore…

    • billlattpa says:

      That’s exactly my point. Why go through the expense and hassle of running a contracting business when you can get a dead simple job with defined hours and health benefits and very little chance of getting injured or killed. It’s just not worth it anymore.
      Thanks
      Bill

  3. stevevoigt says:

    Just a suggestion…before you make an off the cuff statement like “While I’m not exactly sure what a fast food worker makes, I believe it is generally between $9.00-$11.00 per hour”, you might want to spend 30 seconds googling. It’s actually between roughly $7 and $9. That’s average, not starting. And they pay taxes on that, just like you do. So your newbie electrician starting at $13 is making almost double what a starting McD’s worker is. And that’s a pretty big difference. A person making $13 or more can afford to rent an apartment (probably with roomates), pay the bills, have a life. Someone making $7.50 can’t. It’s not a living wage.
    I guarantee you, spend 40 hours working in the hellhole that is a McD’s or BK, and you’ll gladly trade it back for the very real yet statistically small risk of dying on the job as an electrician. I’ve seen a guy get blown off a ladder by 440, so I’m well aware of the risk, but I would have no problem choosing.
    So, to answer your question, it’s not even a close contest. No one in their right mind would work at a fast food joint if they had the chance to work a skilled trade. At least, no one who’s actually worked in a fast food joint.

    • billlattpa says:

      What part of my statement was “off the cuff’? I personally know three people who work at fast food places. My mom, for one, who is technically retired, works the drive through window at Burger King. She started off at $9.85 per hour and now makes $10.60. My coworker’s daughter worked at DQ for the summer, just started there in May. As summer help she made $9.45 plus .20 cents for working the night shift.
      My neighbor works at Dunkin Donuts, makes more than $11 per hour, and she is also “retired”. My “off the cuff” numbers were spot on. I just can’t speak for the entire country. But nobody in my area makes under $7 per hour because the minimum wage here is $8.30.
      Also, the “newbie electrician” starting at $13.00 per hour happens to be an electrician who is fully schooled, has his own tools, and has his own transportation. An untrained electrician’s helper starts off at around $10 per hour, with the difference being that he gets no health benefits, something that most full time fast food employees get.
      I worked at McDonalds in high school as well as a rinky dink diner. I can’t remember either being the hellish nightmare that you are describing.
      That small statistical risk of death on the job for a tradesman is true, I knew two guys who would love to argue with you about it, but considering they’re both dead now they won’t have much to say, but their wives probably would. I also know a guy who had his face burned off when a transformer exploded, he was “lucky” in that he lived. I can tell you one thing, while the number of tradesman who die in the field is relatively small in proportion to the population, the risk of serious injury is far greater than working at a fast food place, and I can personally attest to that.
      While we’re on the subject, the $15 per hour proposal would make a full time fast food worker more highly paid than a buck sergeant in the army. I know that because I was in the army, and the “statistical risk” of injury or death on the job in that field is a little higher than working at Burger King.
      I am guessing, but I believe that you think I have some problem with a fast-food worker making $15 per hour; I don’t give a flying F***. I am saying that for more than 30 years the real-world paychecks of tradesman have been in decline and little is said or done about it. In fact, many people love to say that people like me were overpaid. Now if you were to say that I feel that trade jobs are more important than fast food jobs then you would be correct. We will be in sorry shape when there are no longer enough electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc because it’s just much less of a headache and hassle to get a job at your local fast food joint. And if you don’t believe what I’m saying, look up the statistics on the Department of Labor web page and you will see exactly what I’m talking about.

  4. dzj9 says:

    At some point many people will leave the trades and the folks remaining will be able to charge a healthier sum for their labor. A kind of a fox and rabbit differential equation could probably calculate when to hold’em or when to run.
    Working ‘on retainer’ can be a way to go. The bigger companies write this
    off as expenses and don’t particularly care if you ask for a bit more.

    • billlattpa says:

      Unfortunately, many people already are leaving. In fact, technically I am one of them. It’s simply not worth the hassle for a 19 year old kid to fork out 10 g’s for schooling and tools to make $13 per hour when they can use that money to go to college or just get a fast food job.
      I talk to electricians and carpenters all day long, every day, and every single one of them tells me the same thing: they cannot hire young people because few are willing to do that type of work for the money that is being offered. Even worse, I know people with successful businesses whose kids want nothing to do with it because of the massive hassle/middling pay involved with being a contractor nowadays.
      Maybe one day, tradespeople will be so few and far between (relatively) that they will command a higher pay. But right now it is really bad.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  5. You touched on some interesting points. All I’m going to say is that paying someone $15 an hour to flip burgers is ludicrous. I do not patronize the fast food places anymore as the cost of eating there is as much as going to a sit down restaurant.

    • billlattpa says:

      I personally think it is too high as well, but at the same time it doesn’t bother me because a place like McDonalds will pay a celebrity countless millions to endorse a cheeseburger.
      I’m with you, as I would much rather go to a good diner than a fast food place. But I can’t say that I never go to fast food places because I pick up a cup of coffee at one at least twice a week (the coffee at my work is beyond terrible and I don’t always make it at home)
      Thanks.
      Bill

  6. Andrew Wilkerson says:

    Now you’ve made me hungry. At my local Maccas they don’t even have to press the Big Mac button. We as customers do. All the food is preordered on touch screens or your phone app then you just go to the counter to pick up the food. I think they probably get more than $15 phr here. I should get some of that now that I have to push the big mac button myself!
    I want fries now. Starving here but I’m a woodworker I can’t afford the luxury of McDonalds at the moment. It used to be a cheap meal but they’ve gone too fancy now.
    I almost became an electrician. Kinda glad I didn’t after reading this.

    • billlattpa says:

      I don’t go to fast-food places very often, and usually when I do it’s just for a cup of coffee. Some people hate fast food and see it as evil. I have nothing against it, I just think it’s way overpriced for what it is. As another commenter said, you can often go to a nice diner or café for the same costs as a fast food place and get better quality.
      As far as being an electrician is concerned, I have to say that I probably would not recommend the job to a kid just out of school. Everything I stated in the post is pretty much accurate in most areas. It is difficult at best to earn a living doing electrical work anymore, even though the statistics show that there is a shortage of electricians.
      It’s more a matter of luck than anything else. Some electricians get hooked up with a good outfit and do fairly well, but those places have become far too few and far between.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  7. Greg Merritt says:

    What the hell is wrong with this country? When I turned 16 I went to work at a pizza joint starting out at $3.10/hr. It’s what high school and college kids did to earn some spending money. I worked at several fast food joints during my high school years and not once did I view any of those positions as a viable career choice. If I wanted to make more money I knew that I had to increase my skill level. It was a balancing act. How much education could I afford and what would it get me in terms of increased earning potential?

    Over the course of 15 years I became a maintenance man, LPN nurse, licensed optician, licensed contractor, draftsman and mechanical designer. Earning three college degrees along the way. Two associates and an bachelors. Each move was to increase my earning potential. At no stage did I ever think that the government should force my employer to pay me more simply “because” I wanted more. What an asinine concept!

    • billlattpa says:

      I’m in the same boat as you. I started off at a fast food joint and then a diner. I made $3.75 per hour and admittedly I thought it was great. After HS I joined the army, worked in a print shop, went to school nights and weekends and got a degree in music, then got a degree in electrical systems installation, all the while holding a full time job. Not to mention the many computer and electrical code courses which I still take paid for out of my own pocket.
      Now I work in the sales end of the electrical industry, but I know all too well about the current state of the trades and how it has become increasingly difficult to earn a living.
      As I said before, I have no issue with somebody asking for more money, even to the extent of petitioning the government for it, but I do feel if the government is going to do this for fast food workers, they need to follow suit with many other industries, otherwise it will be more difficult to fill these much needed positions with qualified people. As I said, I find it difficult to believe that many people will be willing to take up a trade, or be a mechanic, or work in a factory, when you can take an unskilled labor job for the same or even better money (often without the demands of constant travel, strange hours, ever changing working conditions etc).
      The arguments made for the increases state that other industries will follow suit. But I highly doubt that the trade industry will see an across the board increase in pay of 30-40 percent in reaction to this. The low-level trade and manufacturing jobs had a pay range that was theoretically high enough to entice prospective employees, but that seems to be no longer the case.
      Speaking for myself, I’ve never received a pay raise of more than 10 percent in any given year, with 3 percent being far more the norm. And there were many years we received no increase.
      To me, this is nothing more than pandering to get votes, but I do think it will have an adverse effect on many mid-level jobs that were once the staple of a strong middle class. I think this legislation hurts that area, not helps it. But I honestly hope I’m wrong.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  8. Scott says:

    This whole post is based on falsehoods.

    First, fast food workers in *New York City* will have a minimum wage of $15/hour. That’s not “some cities” much less the “everywhere tradespeople work” you imply. It’s more than twice as expensive to live in NYC than in (say) Houston, and the cost of living is generally even cheaper outside of urban areas.

    Second, you say that fast food workers make $9-11/hour. I’m happy the your Mom makes that, but the average fast food worker makes $7/hour (http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Fast_Food_Worker/Hourly_Rate).

    Third, you say that “newbie” electricians make $13/hour. That’s about right for “apprentice electricians” nationwide (http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Apprentice_Electrician/Hourly_Rate) but those workers are unlicensed and unskilled — basically the same workers as in fast-food jobs — not trained, tooled and transported as you claim. So they’re making almost twice what fast food workers make, which seems reasonable.

    Fourth, many of the fast food workers fighting for increased wages are unionized and getting the benefit of collective bargaining. Unionized tradespeople do better as well, e.g., IBEW workers http://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/International-Brotherhood-of-Electrical-Workers-Salaries-E31245.htm.

    Finally, it’s misleading to say “skilled woodworkers are underpaid because trades people are underpaid.” Many trade jobs don’t require much more skill than fast food jobs. (Which is why the trades have been flooded with immigrant and other cheap labor.) It’s much fairer to say that “unskilled trades people” don’t get paid much more than “unskilled food workers”, but the key there is that they’re both unskilled.

  9. billlattpa says:

    Firstly, what is false? The $15 dollar per hour minimum wage has been proposed for Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, D.C., and now Philly (which is what prompted me to write the post because it’s my home town) And now there is talk of making it nationwide.

    The minimum wage where I live is $8.30 per hour. EVERY fast food joint in my region starts it’s employees out with at least $9.00 per hour. False? It’s not even disputable. I readily admit that I don’t know what is going on across the country at every fast food place you can name, but I can tell you exactly what is happening in the most densely populated region in the country because I live here.

    Right from the post:
    “I am an electrician. While I can’t say that I know how it works everywhere, I know that in many parts of the U.S”

    In my region, a new hire electrician starts off at around 13-14 per hour. That is after schooling, and that is assuming you have a tool kit, and assuming you have some sort of reliable transportation (I’m not talking about the local bus). An unskilled electrician (or any jobsite laborer) often starts off between 9-10 per hour. You get no health benefits, paid holidays, or paid vacation. Did I once say that I thought this was unfair? No, I only said that if a $15 national fast food wage is passed then it would discourage people from entering trade jobs.

    It took me six years, including more than 1400 hours of schooling to make decent money being an electrician. I had to pay for those classes myself. I had to pay to take the masters exam both in 2005 and 2008, I had to pay for thousands of dollars in tools and licensing fees, and I had to pay for my own health coverage and retirement.

    I have MANY friends in the IBEW, including my step father. I also could have entered it myself but chose not to. I was in the United Steel Workers for more than 10 years, however. The complete myth that a union electrician makes Ungodly sums of money is just that, a myth. If a union electrician makes $60 per hour, he is taking well under half of that home. That money is all prorated for everything from sick time, to vacation time, to holidays, to pension, to health care, to tool allowances, to money set aside for when they will invariably be laid-off for 3-6 months out of the year. A union electrician brings home nowhere near the amount of money people think they do. If they did they would all be multi millionaires by the age of 50.

    I don’t recall saying anywhere that “skilled woodworkers are underpaid because trades people are underpaid.” Nor did I once complain about what I made. I only said that if a National $15 per hour fast food minimum wage is passed I believe it will discourage people from entering the building trades.

    Once again, you seem to think I have some sort of problem with a fast food worker making $15 per hour. I never said that once. What I did say is that trade jobs are often more difficult both physically and mentally and they require far more training and often involve far more risk. To repeat myself, my contention is that a young person looking for a job is less likely to enter into the building trades when he can make the same or better money at a fast food restaurant because it is a far less difficult job to perform, both physically or mentally.

  10. Derek says:

    The whole argument about the 15/hr wage reminds me of this (paraphrased) Russian joke:
    A lowly peasant has one cow, but his neighbor has two. He is green with envy. A sorcerer appears one night and says he will grant the peasant only one wish. “Please, kill one of my neighbor’s cows!”

    If you are a 16 year old, $15/hr is pretty frickin’ sweet. I will give you that. If you are a 35 year old divorced woman with two kids and no other (legal) employment options, your life ain’t exactly gravy.when it gets bumped up to $15/hr. It just becomes slightly less shitty.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve heard that same joke, different animal but same message. As far as the hourly wage is concerned, the number doesn’t matter so much as how it corresponds to other fields. If you’re implying that $15 per hours is still too low then I would agree in a broad sense. Every work-a-day person is underpaid when it comes down to it. My issue is not with fast food workers, it is with the legislation itself.

      On average, and you can look this up if you don’t believe me, a skilled blue collar worker earns anywhere from $14-$25 per hour depending on where you are located and what you do. Of course there may be areas where those numbers are higher or lower, but it is generally correct. If the minimum wage is brought to $15 per hour ( which it already has been in several locations) I contend that it will still not effect the pay checks of skilled workers in the broader sense, because it historically never has. In fact, the de facto money earned by skilled labor has been in steady decline for decades. Yet, proponents of this legislation will argue that everybody’s paycheck will benefit from a raise in the minimum wage. I am saying that a large raise in the minimum wage, which I have nothing against in the least, will deter young people from entering manual labor positions or skilled trade work because there will not be enough pay incentive for them to do so.

      Speaking for myself, if I am 19 years old looking for a job, and I can get a job at a bookstore making $15.50 per hour, or I can spend 9 hours per day running wire in a 130 degree attic for $17.00 per hour, for me that choice is a no brainer. Or lets use another example I am familiar with. I can make $3000.00 per month working at Target, or I can make $1400 being a private soldier in the U.S. Army. Once again, I can only speak for myself but I know where I’m going.

      I am using broad examples, of course. There will always be certain people willing to do certain jobs. But to me, a large increase in the minimum wage only works if all other fields see a proportionate increase as well. I don’t see that happening, but I would be extremely happy if I was dead wrong about that.

      Here are two facts that are easy to research: The pay rates of the skilled trades have been in decline for years, and the number of people entering skilled trades have been in decline for years, to the point where shortages have been predicted almost across the board. Those are facts if you believe the D.O.L.

      There is a laundry list of jobs that Americans supposedly “decline” to take because the pay is so low and they can get much less labor intensive jobs working for the same or better money. That argument has been going on for years upon years. Why would this situation be any different? As I said, would you work as a farm hand when you can make $15 per hour at Wendy’s? I sure as hell wouldn’t. Does that make me lazy? No, it makes me smart. So why would I work as an electrician, or any trade field, when I have a much easier alternative?
      Here again, I am not bashing fast food workers or the money they make. If they can get $20 per hour then God bless them. But how can the government mandate 40% pay increase for one sector of the workforce and not any other? I just don’t see it working out.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  11. One could become a welder, move to North Dakota, and make over $100k a year.

    • billlattpa says:

      There are plumbers and electricians I know that make 100k, and there are also guys that make 35k. The problem is that the 100k jobs are a lot harder to get than the 35k, and they often involve working 65 hours per week. If you’re making $15 bucks an hour and you are working 60 plus hours per week, suddenly your annual salary is around 60k and it looks like you “make a lot”. I just call that “working a lot”.

      Once again, I don’t care if the paychecks of fast food workers double, or people working at the mall, or wherever. I am saying that by making the wage gap between “unskilled” and “skilled” workers almost non-existent it will only discourage people from training for and taking those skilled positions.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  12. Randall says:

    Wow what a conversation. It’s a messed up world we live in when we find ourselves fighting for peanuts.

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