My son Jesse is in Vietnam, managing construction projects over there, teaching folks how to plan and build. Vietnam is booming right now, and companies there are looking for ways to leverage American construction knowledge. I talk to him most mornings, (or in his case, evenings), and through these conversations I’m coming to understand more about craftsmanship, quality, and just how much I’ve taken these values for granted in my life.
Jesse’s particular “craft” is decorative concrete. He’s an artist really, who happens to use concrete materials to build beautiful work that becomes part of a home or place of business. From stamped patios to countertops, he cares deeply for how something looks, and how well it’s put together. He’s built a valuable reputation as someone who “does it right”.
When a Vietnamese company hired him to come over there and work with them, he thought it was for his skill with decorative concrete. Now that he’s over there, though, he’s realizing that their culture is a long ways away from even beginning to understand that sort of concrete.
It’s a pretty foundational concept and value in the American Psyche – the notion of quality workmanship. During my own generation, we let some of that value slip away, and it’s still slipping today. But it’s such a basic underpinning of who we are that many generations will pass before we’ve lost it altogether.
Not that we do everything right. Not that we don’t know how to do shoddy work. We make mistakes, and we do sometimes do shoddy work. But we know it’s shoddy when we do it, and we generally see the mistakes for what they are.
For years, Detroit built cars that were works of art. To this day, few things are as beautiful as a ’56 or ’57 T-Bird, or a ’58 or ’59 Corvette or ’63 Corvette Stingray. How about the ’67 GTO (in black of course). These cars were all built as a result of a solid connection between the American worker and a belief in good workmanship and a quality product. I could go on for pages and pages about things like American furniture, or the solid stone homes throughout the Midwest, or the fine bicycles that are built in small shops across American still today.
We get quality. We get fine workmanship.
I’m learning through Jesse that this isn’t a universal notion – the idea of understanding quality workmanship. As he tries to teach workers in Vietnam some of the most basic notions of how to build a quality product, he’s learning that their cultural vocabulary just doesn’t seem to include an appreciation of a well-planned and well-executed project, or of the difference between a truly fine concrete finish and one that’s barely passable. Their cultural vocabulary seems much more focused on getting done quickly, regardless of the future costs of poor planning. They have a focus on the appearance that something is completed, rather than on an understanding of something done well that will last.
I remember when I was young, and a tag that said “Made in China” was something I was taught to avoid. It implied not only that the product was probably cheaply made, but also that buying the product supported a “system” that we didn’t believe in.
Somewhere in the 56 years of my life, we’ve turned this notion on its head. Now corporations like Walmart seem to be dedicated to stuffing stores with junk made in China. And people shop at these stores, either unaware or uncaring about what this represents.
50 years ago, “Made in America” represented something of great value. Good, hard-working people went to work in well-paying jobs and made good quality products. We knew how to pay people well to do a good job, and how to create and innovate. We knew how to build a 1958 Corvette. OMC built motors that would last for generations, not months or years.
We could have exported this to the rest of the world. We could have taught the rest of the world how to appreciate quality in the same way we appreciated quality, and how to find the elegance, simplicity, and beauty in products that were made well.
Or we could have imported another way of thinking. We could have imported the idea that cheap is better than good. We could have imported the idea that workmanship is worthless, and we need to pay people the lowest wage we possibly can, rather than a wage that will allow them to live well and support other well-paying jobs.
The American Worker would have benefited far more from the first course of action. We The People would be much better off if we’d have invested in exporting American Workmanship overseas. However, large corporations could show a better short-term bottom line by following the second course of action.
Guess which one we chose? We’ve now effectively eliminated organized labor in this country, which was the single most important factor in maintaining a living wage for the American Worker. Companies like Walmart have been very effective in exporting American jobs overseas, while working tirelessly to assure that their workers never enjoy the benefits of organized labor. We’ve lowered our standards of quality in this country, and we’ve accepted that everything we buy is throw-away.
For anyone who thinks I’m being racist in some way in this article, I think you’re missing the point. It isn’t that people in Vietnam or China are “less” somehow than people in America, it’s just that their culture places value on different things. In many instances, I think there are values in these cultures that we should be learning from and importing – they’re better than ours.
But understanding quality and fine workmanship isn’t one of these. Quality Workmanship seems to be something that still flows through American blood, and this is one of those things that we should be exporting, rather than importing the alternative.
Jesse’s a smart guy. He’ll figure out how to teach his colleagues in Vietnam how to focus on quality workmanship, and how to run a project efficiently. By the same token, I’m sure there are some extremely valuable qualities that he’ll pick up from them. I’m just sorry that as a country, we didn’t do that same thing, and instead allowed the short-term profits of a few large corporations like Walmart to define the decline in the culture of American Craftsmanship.