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Why America has so few carpenters

Why America has so few carpenters


·May 21, 2022


I left a job as a carpenter and joiner in 2008 when work dried up. My father stayed at it. I had done some study with the open university and used that to get into office work in Finance.

I miss using tools, but I don't miss the way you had to rush to make money. I always did a good job, but it was constant pressure.

The article mentions that the longer time on the job reduces what can be paid vs a plumber. This is true, but also true is being able to supply materials. I would rarely supply construction timber, because either the main contractor or even the client could buy it themselves for the same price. Whereas a plumber would always supply a boiler, a tank, a bathroom...all with tasty discounts that were not available to the public.

The other big change I saw was the nailgun and chopsaw revolution. All of a sudden some ex-labourer was touting a nailgun and was now a carpenter. Nobody seemed to care that they didn't know what they were doing. We started to find we would be called in to do the roof and then some clown who was 'cheaper' was called in to do the rest.

My apprenticship was 3 years with day release to technical college. That day was a complete joke, the college was disorganised, and underfunded.

I have constant pain in my hands, back and knees for my 10 years. Everywhere I go I see bad carpentry, and nobody cares but me.


Edit: I'm in the UK


> The other big change I saw was the nailgun and chopsaw revolution


I hired a union shop to build my house, and am thankful for it. for various reasons, construction is mostly lowest quality possible, but everybody on my house had a ticket and the result is obvious (not just appearance but lower cost of maintenance).

When I worked at Terrajoule we were not a union shop but we often hired union contractors for specific jobs (particular high pressure welds) or temporary extra manpower — after a couple of terrible experiences, it was clear that union people always knew what they were doing.


"had a ticket" <- I'm not familiar with this phrase. Can you tell us where it comes from?


Probably “had a union ticket”, i.e., were a member of the union.


> I hired a union shop to build my house

Aren’t most tradespeople self-employed? How do you have a union when you’re the boss?


For my house, the general contractor I hired ran a union operation. I didn't hire individual welders and plasterers myself.

Or perhaps I misunderstood the question. Unions are extremely important for those that don't have a single employer. For a lot of union jobs, you'd go to the union hall to find jobs, often by the day or week for jobs like stevedores (mostly gone now of course). For my house, the contractor had a network of people he would reach out to. At Terrajoule, we just advertised in the ordinary way or more commonly asked around, and then we looked at their credentials which generally meant a union ticket for safety critical jobs (which was most of them).


In some places trades are self-employed with no union. Out in the boonies, for example, there isn't a critical mass to support the union's overhead upon the business. Also personal relationships are more important so both getting business and reputation for quality is more automatic (people talk if you are good or bad with an immediate result to your business as expected/presumed)


My experience with shorter versus longer jobs, in the tech industry, consulting a few years back:

- 30-60 minute consultations, I need to charge $600/hour minimum to make ends meet

- 1-2 week gigs, I need to charge $300/hour minimum to make ends meet

- 6-36 month gigs, I need to charge $100/hour minimum to make ends meet

Making ends meet means covering mortgage, health care, etc., not having a decent lifestyle. There is overhead to:

- Finding clients

- Billing

- Cancellations

- Marketing

- Commuting

- Networking

- Contracts / legal

Etc. All of that overhead goes down with longer jobs. I don't feel that "longer jobs" are the root culprit here. If I were to guess, the root problem is that anyone can do carpentry (poorly). That sets low expectations on prices. That keeps better tradespeople out, since you can make so much more in any of the other trades.


Another experienced consultant/contractor here and this 100%. The time overhead is what kills you, spending hours to get an hour of payable work is different than spending hours to get 18 months of billable work. And spending hours of work just to not get the project is common.

It's why actors have agents, if they had to market themselves they'd have no time for acting.


Any tips on how to get into software consultancy?


This will sound flippant, but know people. You don't need to know them well. Former bosses, workers, etc. are fine. In a tight job market, many will be looking for people.

Random recruiters are fine too. If someone's calling you up to recruit, you can let them know you're not open to employment, but glad to consult. Many companies will be open to both. Indeed, consultants are cheaper on taxes and benefits, and easier to let go, so there are a lot of wins for the company. .

The bigger question is whether you should consult.

Why do you want to get into it?


disclaimer: i've only been doing this for a couple years...but it's gone pretty well. i've written this more like a story than direct advice, because i think all the twists and turns are relevant.

i went straight from college (dropout) into the consulting world right before COVID hit. i gave myself a year to get the consulting business going, and if that didn't work, i was planning to get a "real job."

i started off by leveraging my existing contacts in the software world: mostly a couple internships that I'd had (one before my year of college, one after). the first few months, i was only working for those two places while i tried to figure out how to expand. i started a blog [0] at this point -- it was mostly nontechnical content, but helped me demonstrate that i'm a sane person and a reasonably good communicator.

i started replying to the "Who wants to be hired?" threads here on HN and got my first couple (small) independent contracts there. then a family friend who runs a high-volume used book business needed his whole inventory/order management system redone from scratch, and i was a) cheaper and b) a known quantity, so he hired me. you can interpret this as me getting lucky, and in some sense it is, but i strongly believe that luck favors the prepared. i certainly wouldn't have gotten that gig if i hadn't been prepping for it, hard. this is when i started to raise my rates.

(you've probably seen this repeated endlessly on HN, but it bears repeating: raise your rates. raise your rates. and then raise them again. to match $XX/hr as a FTE, you need to charge at least 2*$XX/hr as a consultant. ideally a lot more.)

i spent tons of time reading HN and twitter, and responding to anyone who was doing something i found interesting. i went into these interactions with no expectation of getting work out of it -- i just wanted to meet people who were working on cool things. a few of those interactions did turn into work, and one person i met is now one of my best IRL friends. crazy.

at some point, i had to learn about a new amazon service (the Selling Partner API) for that bookstore project, and discovered just how badly documented and tested it was. after a couple months (!!) figuring out how to use it properly, i wrote a few blog posts about it, and people started hiring me from my blog (and now, my OSS SP API library [1]). between that, and a few of those people i talked about meeting via HN/twitter/etc, i've kept busy for the past 18 months. i actually just hired my first part-time employee, which is exciting :)

i think the three biggest things that have made me a modestly successful consultant are:

1. focusing on people over everything else. if you're a consultant, you're a salesperson, and in my experience just being genuinely interested in other people is the easiest and most effective form of sales. 2. writing online. it's cliched, but it works. you don't need that many people to see what you've written for it to be worth it -- i've never gotten more than 150 views in a day on my blog, and usually it's way less than that, but that's been enough to have plenty of work. 3. raising my prices ;)

i make a lot less money than i might by working for FAANG/etc, but i have total time and location freedom, i don't work a ton, and i really enjoy running my own show. ymmv, and good luck :)

[0] [1]


I care! I never worked in trade, but perhaps I have an obsessive personality and like it when things are done properly. When I moved to the UK a few years ago, one of the first things I noticed is the appalling quality of work that the construction industry puts out in the UK. It is truly shocking. Everything is just “that’ll do”. It is very difficult to find a true craftsman these days, even if you are willing to pay for it.

I want people in trade to earn a very good wage. It is difficult labour that requires a lot of practice and experience to do well. Unfortunately, the entire industry today seems to be drowned out by construction “sweatshops”. It’s sad.


Seriously? Quality feels 2x higher compared to US in my observations


ahem, former son of a carpenter.

In the USA and several other places the way from unskilled to skilled was via carpenter as you could enter the field unskilled.

My father went from truck driver to carpenter after a truck driver strike.

And due to that there was always money loosing cycles occurring when it was easy to get in and an over supply of those wanting to get in.

What some did was step up to furniture finishing such as kitchen cabinets, bars, etc.


"I have constant pain in my hands, back and knees for my 10 years."

There are a bunch of industries out there where the pay is horrid and the skills required are high. EG: butcher, carpenter, chief, school teacher, most retail, auto mechanic, etc. I would want a high price for "knees".


But imagine how it was 50 years ago. Pretty much the same, minus health security.


No...50 years ago we had the NHS, and sickness benefits, same as today

My father and grandfather were both in the trade. 50 years ago there were some safety concerns, especially around scaffolding (asbestos too, but that's its own story). However they all lamented about how much easier it was to feed your family then.


Also 50 years ago if you were building new housing, if your work was sub-standard you did not get paid. There would be a clerk of works checking it was up to scratch. Now it is a race to the bottom


Where I live (NZ), 50 years ago they had apprenticeships. Behold the fruit of deregulation.


My parents met when they were both working construction. My mom was a surveyor and a laborer at various times; she helped get my dad into the union (Philly) and he was a carpenter. My mom stopped it to raise me and my sibling; my dad did it until it entirely broke his body. (I would not be writing this as a college-educated adult if he hadn't had a union pension that kicked in on disability.)

I know precisely one person my age who's working construction and he knows he's got to get out before it does the same to him. If most of the people you know work office jobs you may not be familiar with just how routine and severe those "injuries" are that they mention. All the cultural factors are real too -- hoo BOY my mom has stories -- but you gotta look at this stuff through how physically destructive it is to the workers.

(I'm sure there's a health care angle too, of course -- so much of my parents' compensation went to those "Cadillac" health care plans that politicians don't understand the point of. It'd be interesting to compare Canada)


Here in Germany about 50% of high school graduates go into a traditional vocational program, many of which are crafts. Electrical work, the car industry, machinery, carpentry, woodwork and so forth.

My family (with me being the first exception) is all blue collar and I understand that construction is uniquely taxing physically but from my parents and people younger I've never heard horror stories about lost fingers or anything like that you're used to from very old people who work in trades. It's definitely possible to do these jobs safely and with good pay nowadays and safety regulations as well as better tools have aided a lot.

A lot of it I feel has to to with culture. If you have a guild system or something comparable that values the crafts and make sure payment and standards are met it's very different from letting people work themselves into the ground.


I've only heard the, you know, missing-finger classic table saw horror stories very indirectly, honestly. My parents both spoke of OSHA rules like they were the gospel of the earth below, and the union had the power to ruin the company's day if they weren't following them. Non-union work here is very, very different, though -- some stories aren't mine to repeat, but I'll note "Helpers, construction trades" here:

Even on following-the-rules job sites, "safely" is always kind of relative; when lifting and carrying and repetitive motion can be the causes of disabling injuries, it gets really hard to define bright lines with which you can protect yourself over decades. To some extent, taking time and being careful are the guards you have, but ... any American workplace knows that having your employees exercise wide individual discretion to set an appropriate pace -- well, that doesn't sound like Maximizing Efficiency, does it? (Sorry, I did try to tone down the bitterness here.)

Actually, there's a specific gauge on that I'd be curious to compare against, even anecdotally, for how things differ there: how common are people getting hernias at work?


It happened to my father - lost his two right middle fingers on a table saw. I suppose this was before OSHA rules had wider-reaching impact, because he lost them in the late 60s (while working on construction for the NYC housing authority ... so it could have been union at that time, but I don't remember what he said.)


I worked in a job that employed lots of disabled blue collar workers.

It’s the joints: bad knees, bad backs.

It’s not like back in the day where you get missing fingers. That’s really rare.

But the steady grind of lifting, carrying, lifting, carrying, again and again destroys the joints.

That’s harder to regulate away.


Hauling materials breaks your body over time. I know from experience.


In addition to the inherent physical nature of the work, another problem is working for small businesses that fly under the radar of OSHA and other regulations. Also, family owned businesses don't have a "normal" career advancement process unless you belong to the family.

When people come to work on my house, I've noticed that everybody who is around my age (58) is hobbling and broken.


On the other hand the family sized ones do jobs that aren't economically viable for a large unionized one because of too much overhead. The difference between a large construction company and a small one remodeling your home can be in the five figures. I think it's not fair to say that a family one lacks career advancement, it's like saying that a small web development shop doesn't have the same career advancement opportunities as Microsoft. It doesn't mean that working for a small shop is a dead end job. In reality an experienced tradesman is always in high demand by larger firms or has the ability to be an independent contractor, regardless of where he started. In large cities a licensed plumber or electrician can make six figures and trying to get them to come out to your house can take weeks because they're so busy. The independent nature of the work makes it very resistant to national franchises, and different start ups have tried to make "uber-like" services for contracting tradesmen, Amazon has tried upselling "pro" installation services but nobody's been able to really centralize it yet.


> The difference between a large construction company and a small one remodeling your home can be in the five figures.

I work by myself, for myself, and I'm able to charge much less than most simply because I have almost no overhead and almost everything goes in my pocket. I don't need to pay for a building lease, employees, company vehicles, etc. But it'll take me a week to do what those other companies can do in a day.


Oof, the flaky radar of regulatory agencies... I wonder if it's the same in other comparable countries -- not just OSHA, but all DOL enforcement broadly is just such a joke in the US that it seems reasonable to expect almost any random place might be doing better.


I've been fortunate in finding a remodeling contractor that hires people who know what they are doing and pays them minimum of $30/hr and is insured/licensed. So far most of them have done excellent work. Some are purely carpenters, some are mostly painters, some have multiple skills. I talk with them and most could work for large construction companies building hotels and apartments (lots of that going on here) but prefer working 40 hr weeks working on people's homes. The carpenter (now retired) did a bunch of work in my house and was amazing to watch.


Trades were not great for me. I felt like I was just waiting to get killed by a coworker constantly. For $25/hr CAD. Not a very good deal at all.

Apart from the risk imposed by working with totally careless and disengaged people in large machines, my body felt like garbage all the time. My elbow stopped working near the end and I couldn’t do simple things like open my car door. I learned to program as fast as my brain could accommodate. It was totally unsustainable.


Huh. My neighbor growing up was an electrician. By his 40's he struck out on his own with his own company. Made way more money than my family that was doing white collar office jobs.

Dude spent his 50's retired on some boat.


He is probably a businessman who started as an electrician


But did he make his money as an electrician or an entrepreneur and business owner?


Both. Good enough electrician to have a long customer list. Figured he could strike out on his own and hire his own crews.

Like a programmer working for a FAANG then starting their own consultancy.


My parents were fishermen and have close to the same story, only without the union safety net. Which went as well as you can imagine.

My parents constantly encouraged me and were happy to see me pursue a white collar path because they didn't want me to go through the same thing when I got older. A lot of the shortages is cultural: Parents steering their kids out of said path as much as possible, sexism/racism and so forth. But then there's also the pay issue where the pay doesn't match the labor intensity nor are there many safety nets unless you're part of a union.


Like every other profession with a supposed shortage the pay and work conditions suck. And guess what shortage…

It’s like there is a shortage of people willing to pick fruit at 10$ an hour and live in terrible conditions while exposed to harsh chemicals. No shit you need to pay people a whole lot more money


Managers complaining about "not enough x" mean "I'm not willing to pay the market rate for x". Like, its a free market, up your price... or do you think basic economics don't apply to labor too? I'm surprised this article doesn't examine why companies aren't upping their pay.


they are not upping pay, because it's not profitable. to pay ppl enough $ to entice them to do carpentry is not profitable, hence so few of them. I remember climbing a 4,000 ft mountain in a day in the hot could not pay me enough $ to ever want to do that again, and even if you could, it would never be profitable. That's why things are airlifted.


Yeah but carpentry has to be done and is getting done. It’s not so expensive you stop the job and wait for a lower price. My guess is you just use other unskilled labor and go for good enough. Maybe a true skilled carpenter isn’t worth the premium or the value isn’t clear to the buyer


>they are not upping pay, because it's not profitable.

They could raise their prices too. When they say "it's not profitable" they mean "we would like to have workers at low pay, but still enjoy selling at low prices".


Haha, very good timing, I just climbed a 4k mountain today in a Virginia heatwave. It was almost 100F real feel in the valley, and if I wasn't doing it for my own satisfaction I'd definitely want a good amount of money for it!


Funny to hear the mountain example. One of my favorite hikes was a 115F climb up the Flatiron.




Or US government can start to issue large number of temporary "fruit picker" visas.


New Zealand does exactly this, and I’m of two minds on it. On the one hand, it seems easy to say that if you don’t have enough workers, you’ve got to raise your price - it’s a free market, right? Except it’s not. NZ has a very generous welfare system (compared to its very small GDP) and this means that being un- or under-employed is a viable option.

On the other hand, the jobs also bring in a lot of money for the islanders who perform them, and the wages are relatively high by international standards due to NZ’s high minimum wage.

We already have a cost of living crisis, and raising the price of fruit and vegetables by removing these visas for seasonal workers seems like it would hurt everyone without helping anyone in particular.


This is exactly what the US government does with H2A visas.




Same thing with housing.

There is no housing shortage, there are just people who aren't willing to pay the market rate for housing. Up your price that you are willing to pay and you will have housing. If you can't pay the market rate for housing, do not be surprised when you do not have housing.

Basic economics.


I would argue that there is a housing shortage in many American cities insofar as there is demand for far more housing than currently exists. The housing would be built y the market if it were legally allowed, or not otherwise strongly disincentivized. As such prices are rising faster than inflation. This tells us that demand outstrips supply.


> people who aren't willing to pay the market rate

Or who are unable.

I have a sincere question, though. What about the (potential, I’m still mulling this over) distortion introduced by foreign players flooding the market? I can tell you firsthand that places like Seattle, Vancouver, London, Los Angeles, and New York City experience heretofore unheard-of amounts of money coming in from prosperous but less stable economies like China.


This ignores regulatory barriers that impact costs.

If it costs 500k to permit and inspect a house, you can absolutely complain


Local zoning means that the supply of housing is artificially constrained far below what would be an efficient use of land. Are you suggesting that labor has similar constraints in carpentry, or just being glib?


How much will you pay for that fruit? Because that will limit how much the farmer can pay the fruit pickers.

Automation is the key to getting out of this trap: just build robots to pick the fruit and problem solved. I expect that is the only other way out of all our labor problems except for maybe the child care crisis (licensing boards are adamant about staffing requirements per kid even if that isn’t affordable).


If your job is replaced by a robot you can now have time to look after your kids. The problem is the person profiting from the robot is not the same person who needs the money to raise their kid.


That really isn’t how rising productivity works. Your job isn’t replaced by a robot, you can do more, but childcare will never be able to reap the same productivity gains, and hence, people will migrate out of child care into other areas of high productivity where they can simply be paid more. It costs rise so high that it makes sense for one parent to take over childcare duties and not worn anymore.

It is a huge problem and we are seeing the effects in real time. At least education is mostly socialized so the problem reduces after 5 or so (but before and after school care is becoming impossible).


Yeah there's always a shortage of people willing to do my bidding for free.

It's antithetical. Claiming a shortage means there is not a shortage.


Not to mention illegal immigrants willing to work for half the going market rate because they're not paying taxes.


I thought it was shown that in aggregate, illegal immigrants do pay as much or more tax than comparable income demos for citizens.


1) I know a number of illegal immigrants and they do not pay taxes.

2) They couldn't anyway even if they wanted to since they don't have a tax ID.

3) Since their employer is already breaking the law by hiring them paying taxes doesn't make a whole lot of sense.


The last 50 years of American prosperity was built primarily on the exploitation of labor as unions declined and Capital starting consuming an outsized amount of Labor’s productivity (with a fair amount of help from globalization efforts). Until the scales tip (and there are signs we’re headed there) and labor has more power with stronger unions, people should not expect workers to take garbage jobs (even in trades when they’re non union) because of manufactured shortages or crises. There is no labor shortage, only a shortage of workers willing to take undesirable work for unreasonable compensation. Luckily (?), as labor force participation continues to decline (10k Boomers retire each day) and there isn’t an appetite to ramp immigration, labor supply constraints will continue to push up wages (but is not a long term solution for broad scale productivity equity participation versus labor organization).


> The last 50 years of American prosperity was built primarily on the exploitation of labor as unions declined and Capital starting consuming an outsized amount of Labor’s productivity

This is a really lazy analysis that ignores all of the productivity gains that came from automation and information technology. People who put together cars didn’t start making less money, they got replaced by robots.


Between OP's analysis and your reply, there's only one I'd dare to call lazy.


That was an analysis? That was a lazy regurgitation of luddite talking-points that you'd hear in pubs after a few drinks.


Op didn’t have any analysis at all. It’s just a meme and a really old one at that.


They did start making less money too. Factories moved away from union dominated places to lower waged non-union states. Even the unions ended up selling out and lowered wages for new members to protect their own pay.


Why do you think all the "foreign" automakers set up factories in the South? So they could avoid the cost of union-workers, or force the unions to lower their costs.


What would carpentry work have to pay before the demand is satisfied? It is my view that many people don't want to do trades at any reasonable rate. I would imagine most people my age would rather make $60k a year answering emails and doing zoom meetings than $120k going to a jobsite early every morning in any weather all year long.


The reasonable rate is the amount of money it takes to incentivize people to do it, i.e. where the market clears.

Maybe the $60k to do zoom is too much, and the $120k to work in the early morning in the cold and rain should be $200k.

I guess we will find out soon enough.


The answer might end up being prefab housing etc. effectively replacing tradies with robots, not completely but to the point where the ones that are there get paid well.


That's a good point - maybe we really do not need all those carpenters? I live in an aparment in a building made from prefabs. All my furniture is made by machines in Ikea factories. I literally never had any need for carpenter.


So then offer improved job conditions. Shorter hours, better safety, extra pay for shitty weather days, etc.

The problem is that it takes awhile to train for the job so the labor market won’t be able to react very quickly. By the time we’re adjusting the job offering it’ll be too late.


There is no "too late". Costs will go up and more people will do it or do without




If software engineering and carpentry paid the same, I'd be a carpenter.


Ha. I joined the Navy in the 90s and when I got out I tried to get into auto mechanic school. They wanted me to sign up for an apprenticeship at a car dealership and were happy to take my tuition money. But no one would allow me (female) to apprentice. They would say "sure...wait a bit for a start date" then I would call to ask when to come in and they would always have given the spot to a male student.

Even after getting into the IT field, I tried to learn carpentry. I went to local shops that had the tools. No one was receptive to me for some reason. They were either closed during the times I could go after work, or defunct, or only wanted people who already knew carpentry (WTF).

Anyway, I entered software development because it was the only field that would hire me entry level. Aaaaaandd the only field I could actually self-teach. I am grateful for that fact...that you can teach yourself through books (back then no StackOverflow haha) nor Youtube, nor Udemy, etc. Just plain push yourself through the text books available. I spent a LOT of time at Borders books and Barnes and Noble, trying to figure things out.

You can't really do that with carpentry. Maybe you can self-teach auto repair. But as a woman, not even my family members would spend time to teach me (I had a cousin that was embarrassed to have me help out at his auto shop).

I got away with self-teaching IT as a black woman because it is not nearly as sexist or racist as other fields, with Indian and other immigrants showing the way to enlightenment to a great degree (in my personal experience).


Huh. That is an interesting point about carpentry not being as easy to self-teach. I don't think it's entirely impossible to do so, the Youtuber Mr. Chickadee being a counter-example: he's mentioned in interviews learning techniques from books, such as Japanese joinery.

But then if you watch channels like Essential Craftsman it's clear there's a great deal of know-how that has to be passed on by someone who knows the trade. Stuff about how to work efficiently and tricks you wouldn't think of. Even if it were in a book or videos exist, you don't necessarily know to go looking for it.

It is definitely possible to self-teach auto repair. I did, out of necessity. Things you try either work or they don't, but there's logical reasons for it that can be derived from first principles.

However the computer is in a class of its own when it comes to self-teaching. Instant feedback and infinite capacity for experimentation. Carpentry doesn't have a built-in objective critic like that. Auto-repair is somewhere in between.


You'll pass their "do you already know carpentry" test by being able to demonstrate basic safety knowledge and knowing which tool is which. You can definitely teach yourself carpentry, and they are likely selective because they have people coming in who have already self-taught a fair amount. So if you come in not knowing what a screwdriver or a drill bit is, they don't want you.

It would be unreasonable if they expected something like experience with specialty MDF blades and full panel saws. I doubt that is really what they wanted.


> But no one would allow me (female) to apprentice.

Wow. That's really shitty.

IBEW (electrical workers union) seemed to be pretty decent about apprenticing in Southern California.

My situation was the reverse: I wanted to get some training in electrical code, but didn't want to apprentice. That completely discombobulated everybody at the union--it was like they were seeing a space alien. They had no ability to accomodate my request even if I gave them money.


Why would they want to train a rat?


I know it's probably not the same, but my ex (a woman of color) has been self-learning woodworking by going to a shared community studio. They also have free courses geared towards women and minorities. Perhaps there's something like that in your area.

It's not the same as getting a paid job (she was doing it as a hobby), but did pick up occasional gigs and had several other offers for work


My great-grandfather and uncle (retired) were carpenters. While carpentry is a great hobby they definitely preferred/liked my professional direction -- at some point lungs, legs, hands, and wood do not like each other.


Well considering the culture on most job sites includes ridiculing people for wearing safety glasses and dust masks, there’s definitely room for improvement.


every job site ive been on, no one ridiculed me for wearing safety glasses or dust masks. quite the opposite.


Having done some light home renovation, I would prefer installing printers over carpentry.

And I hate printers.


no, nobody deserves to have to install printers. Thats a human rights violation


Yea but then you'd have to be interviewed like a software engineer


I might get RSI at work but it's very unlikely that I'll cut my fingers off in a mousing accident.


Carpenters get RSI all the time too - or neuralgia e.g swinging a hammer 1,000 times a day for 30 years will take a toll on your elbow.


You realize hammers are a last resort tool these days when you can't get a nail gun somewhere.


Maybe go work for Etsy? Dogfood your own product.


That's the story of Etsy's original founder/CEO, actually - he was a woodworker who wanted a better way to sell online. Same with me, too - I was a glassblower selling on Etsy and founded a successful startup based on their site, because I wanted a better way to manage my shop.


If carpentry paid more I would stay as a SWE


I would say this is not just a problem in the US. In France there is the same problem. The wages just aren't worth it for this kind of hard work.

A good carpenter I knew a while back was making maybe at best 2500 euros per month with overtime after tax with more than 10 years of experience.

Despite being a team leader he still had to lift, bend and work just like his subordinates. You could tell that it was starting to take a toll on his body.

The job is tough, when its cold in winter and you stand on a ladder and its raining and your fingers are frozen, you have to keep going. In summer, you are on a roof and is 35 degrees Celsius outside and there is no shade.

One misstep and you can fall down, but you have to keep going to be productive. So sometimes you bend the rules a little. Then you hurt yourself.

There is also more and more drug and substance abuse in the trades. You take some painkillers at night because your joints hurt. You take blow because you can work faster and longer. Drinking on the job is also well tolerated.

In truth this is a young man's game.

My dad has been in the construction trade on and off for the last 30 years and his body is starting to give up. I myself was a laborer before joining the tech world. I injured my knee on the job and now every once in while I have pain so I have to be careful to not run or walk too quickly otherwise it flares up.

I think construction workers should be closely monitored for physical injuries and be told the truth about their job and the toll it will eventually take on their bodies. Some people think they are invincible.

My dad knew this guy in his twenties(20 years ago) who thought he was the toughest of all. Carrying heavy stuff day in and out, climbing on ladders with a heavy load on his back and shoulders.

The last time I saw him a few years ago(he is know in his forties), he was a broken man and wearing some sort of back support at all times because his back is in shambles. Obviously he doesn't work in the trades anymore.


Similar story. My dad was a carpenter doing wood frame construction in southern California. He later got his contractor's license - better money and less physical labor but he still did some construction. I worked summers as a laborer for him when I was in high school. I never got injured but he had injuries now and then. The one that did him in was a fall due to a broken rafter that broke his heel. He could never walk normally after that.

Even when he was young he told me to make money with my brain not my back. He would also tell me to look around at a job site and ask my why I thought there were no old roofers (falls), or painters (paint fumes), or plumbers (solder fumes).

Some of my high school friends got started in construction via my dad. It was good money and they were not the college-bound types. A few years later I heard one of my good buddies cut off his thumb with a Skilsaw. By now most of the others are probably broken down.


Thank you to share these experiences. Real question: You wrote: <<Drinking on the job is also well tolerated.>> Is this "having fun" drinking or "reduce the pain" drinking? Either way, I can see how alcohol could increase risk on a construction site.


By drinking on the job, I mean drinking a bottle of red wine at lunch time for example. Also having a few beers around 3 pm. Then going back to the pub around 5 pm with your coworkers. Arriving on a job site hungover from the night before was a regular occurrence.

When I was working with some old timers, some of them would start the day by going to the pub at 7:00 am and order a few shots of hard liquor to start the day(especially on cold days). In France, pubs/cafes open really early...


Because the pay is too low for the required labor. Court dismissed, bring in the dancing lobsters.

Also the way these pro-trade articles always frame college as some nebulous malignant force pulling people away from necessary, "good-paying" trades is a laugh. As if people who have the option to bring home electrical engineer wages and work in an air-conditioned office would choose to become an electrician instead. There will be some small handful, but the incentives push strongly towards one over the other.


You think everyone can be an electrical engineer? Or even wants to be an electrical engineer?

If you look at when the trades start earning and if they are willing to go where the high pay is (just like some CS guy won’t make FAANG wages in Ohio), they can do very well.


> You think everyone can be an electrical engineer? Or even wants to be an electrical engineer?

No, that's why I said:

> There will be some small handful, but the incentives push strongly towards one over the other.


> If you look at when the trades start earning and if they are willing to go where the high pay is (just like some CS guy won’t make FAANG wages in Ohio), they can do very well.

Of course, and if you look at when degreed engineers start earning (not even mentioning benefits, bonuses, equity...), and if they are willing to go where the high pay is, both numbers are higher. Until that's not true, until the lifetime earnings of trades is at parity or higher than college-bound careers, the incentives will always be lined up that college is the better choice from an earnings point of view.

Money isn't everything. Not everyone will pick the options that lead to the highest lifetime earnings/earliest retirement/least risk of on the job injury, but most will if given the option. Pretending that isn't true doesn't benefit anyone.


Maybe you can try again? I’m still not sure the point you’re making.

I mean, no, someone who wants to be an engineer won’t choose the trades. But they wouldn’t do it regardless. That’s not the point.


My father was a independent carpenter and it took a toll on him. He had to do it if he was going to be able to get by while young and still living with his parents (my grandfather was also a carpenter.) It was a life of toil: plenty of injuries, probably maybe preventable if he managed safety a bit, lost fingers in an table saw accident (while working in construction during the late 60s on new NYC housing project development.) He never wanted me to do the work he did nor ever take on the lifestyle he did, unlike what was forced on him and loved to see that I had a strong interest in computer programming, thinking I would be a millionaire by the time I was 30 (didn't happen :) ) My brother went into a trade, but not into carpentry.

The only time I was required to do anything carpentry-related was during summers because he thought (rightfully) I would just sit around and do nothing. I never felt cut out for it - it was very hard work that requires patience and strong will, besides physical strength and if I think one is not careful, it will catch up to one's self, like it did with my father.


I like that you mention patience. Carpentry takes patience, you need to pace yourself, and you need to adopt safety behaviors, that will get you through the day. If I watch my family work, they all do things slowly and paced. “Measure twice, cut once.”


My father would say something like that too. He insisted also to finish one contract at a time and to not take on more work than he can. Since he also planned out the work ahead of time, his mind was completely in one job.

He wouldn't even ever stop for lunch. He said he wanted to do that to leave early, but I can assume it was because the time he put into 8am-3pm was his best time to concentrate. I can understand this well now - when I had to work with him, he made me always clean up, but I was slow at it, didn't fully understand the animosity that it frustrated him. But, he needed clean areas.

Needless to say, it did stick with me (but maybe the patience took a bit more time to catch up with me :) )


It is a good lesson, sounds like a great memory as well!


If this is a real labor shortage, it's possible to do a lot more pre-cutting and just assemble on site. 120 years ago, Sears sold entire pre-cut house kits. Good ones. Some are still in use.[1] There are kit homes today from many sources.



All these professionals from vocational fields are horribly expensive in America. And then there are articles like these claiming they don't make money. BS. America has no public/private vocational school/training culture. People don't even teach each other unless you are born into the family of craftsman.


Yeah in the north east, carpenters with good reputations (they reliably show up, work to code, can think) make 6-figures easily. There’s no end to the work and they can pick and choose.

The price to do a renovation or build out here has gone through the roof with labor and materials becoming expensive.


Which is weird. Germany is full of vocational schools where everyone who wants to, young and old can learn various trades for cheap/free and yet labor is still expensive.


A few other things that weren't mentioned in the article:

As others in the comments have noted, there's no barrier to relatively unskilled people calling themselves 'carpenters', which drives down wages. This is much less of a factor with plumbing, electrical, HVAC etc.

Like all tradespeople, you ultimately need to own 5 figures worth of specialized tools, which makes the low wages even more pernicious

The construction industry is famously boom & bust/based on economic cycles, which obviously doesn't help anyone's job security

'Carpentry' is a very broad category (to my understanding on the West Coast they have a firmer delineation between frame & finish carpenters), but if you include framing and roofing, it's much more physical than plumbing or electrical work. Ultimately this is much tougher on your body over the decades


You can make a living as a carpenter, and the work is often glorious, but like lots of industries wealth is often built on the exploitation of labor. Unions have been gutted over the last 100 years, so if you want to run an honest business and earn a good income you need to do high-end work.

But who are you working for? The upper classes. Of course these lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. are not specifically to blame, many are kind and decent human beings. But we're all living in the same system, and to put it in HN terms, we need to wipe and reinstall the OS.

Seeing more women in the trade (seems like a lot more in the last five years) does give me some sense of a positive change. As far as I can tell contractors are still quite ethnically/racially segregated though.


I remember watching a presentation on a high-end woodworker who just happened to be the son of a celebrity. He was working quite a bit with vacuum formed pieces that would sell for several thousand dollars in the 90s, with enough capital outlay from his father's money that he could build a dozen or so items at a time. It was then that I realized that the ability to make a living from crafting high-quality, modern furniture was probably a pipe dream for me simply because it would take me decades to gather the resources that this guy got for free, and by that time I'd be decades behind in relevant experience.


I'm a furniture maker. I come to the field with a lot of privilege having worked software for some years previously (but not earning FAANG retire early money), and having a spouse whose job provides considerable stability and health insurance.

You don't need high end vacuum forming equipment to make beautiful, high-end furniture. There are certainly styles for which that would be required, but through human history, people built furniture not only without that equipment, but also wholly without power tools.

You can built modern-looking work using very traditional techniques. I would go out on a limb and claim that stuff that requires truly modern equipment looks "weird", even to a modern eye because we have thousands of years of a furniture record of stuff put together using the same basic techniques.

A joined chair looks like a joined chair whether it's some frilly French thing or some staid and severe English thing. A staked chair looks like a staked chair whether it's some high-style Windsor or a milking stool. A Thonet rocking chair looks f*cking wild because it departs from thousands of years of practice of how people make chairs. It still looks wild, over 150 years after its introduction.

Even a Maloof rocker is made with fairly well-established techniques. I don't say that to take anything away from his design, but to illustrate that you can build very contemporary furniture without making a wild departure from the practice and tools that have served furniture makers for a very long time.

Edited to add: I think I could have become a very good carpenter, but I went into furniture because you find older people still working as furniture makers, and damn few working as carpenters.


I understand, but at the time I was extremely interested in those sorts of vac-formed items. In the same way, I was fascinated with the free-form houses that consisted of metal mesh being covered with concrete. I was simply a kid who wanted to live in a future I designed.

My 7x great grandfather was a french master carpenter by way of Germany built the first iteration of the modern St Louis Cathedral and Ursuline Convents in New Orleans and once found pirate treasure stuffed into the wall of a man's house while attempting to remodel, lol.


This is the stuff that "hurts" the most. The realization that not everyone starts from the same place and most of us are way back from starting line. And no matter how hard you work there isn't a way to recover that "lost distance".