Agility in the Skilled Trades


I’ve been working in the skilled trades for two years, building apprenticeships in the Midwest for Mechanical Systems Inc. Before 2016, I had never owned a pair of steel-toed boots, wore FR clothing (flame resistant), or even driven a pick-up truck. I use all three, daily.

Much of my work resembles what I was doing in the Seattle tech industry: education, writing course material, and workforce development. My time is spent managing grants (working with the Department of Labor and other government agencies), connecting with the community (schools and WorkForce centers) and working directly with our apprentices. At least once a week, I make a visit off-site where most of our work is done (ethanol plants, sugar beet processing facilities, food processing, pharmaceuticals—if it has pipes that need to be welded, we’ve done it).

A few times a year, I spend about a week on a job site helping on a turn-around. This is when an entire plant shuts down so all its equipment can be cleaned and repaired. Since the facility is not in production during this time, it costs A LOT in lost revenue. We have crews working around the clock so the job can get done on time, on spec, and on budget.

The last nine days, I was in Wisconsin working a turn-around. As I was thinking about what I wanted to write about this week, my thoughts returned to the workers and their unique insights into productivity and work/life fulfillment. The following is a collection of agile skills I’ve picked up in the last two years that I would not have learned if I had never left the comforts of my office.


Don’t Judge a Person by Their Coveralls (Or Their College Degree)

Contrary to our culture’s popular opinion, the workers I’ve met in the skilled trades are smart and incredibly hard working. This should go without saying, and yet, I’m constantly defending skilled trades workers to my college-educated friends—many of whom are making less than the second-year welding apprentices.

This is interesting to me: the educated poor can feel sorry for the blue-collar rich. There are some uncomfortable truths hanging in these words. Meanwhile, the college grads with low-paying jobs and a mountain of student loan debt feel lied to because they were the ones who were supposed to get the high-paying jobs, 401K, health insurance, benefits, etc. I’m not picking a side, I only bring up the issue because it hits at an even deeper issue: what is the value of an education?

What is an education? How much does a college degree (or lack thereof) contribute to financial success? The often un-asked and more important question is: how much does a college degree contribute to overall happiness? Even though a welder is making more than most of my educated friends, does their knowledge provide more happiness?

The owner of the company I work for told me: “Reading a lot of books doesn’t make you smart, it only means that you are good at reading books. How you use your knowledge is what makes you smart.” I agree. Going to a good school doesn’t give you any securities; it’s what you do with your education that matters.

In college/university, in the skilled trades, and in white-collar work, street smarts—a.k.a. emotional intelligence—is worth more than any hard skill bought at a university or learned on a jobsite.


“It Is What It Is.”

“It is what it is” is a common blue-collar phrase, and it’s actually an agile expression, though I didn’t recognize it at first. Being a college grad with my assumptions about the skilled trades, I had low expectations: I thought they were accepting defeat. What I learned is, “it is what it is” is accepting the conditions as they are, so we shouldn’t spend any more time on the current approach if it’s not working. Now is the time to come up with a new strategy.

It is what it is: you can’t change it, but you can outsmart it, because there’s always solution—and we have to find it or else the whole facility can’t go into production.


Are You Working to Live or Living to Work?

Are you selling out or buying in? Is your work an exchange of time for money or is it an investment of time in specific skills that you see long-term value in developing?

The people who show up for a paycheck sell their time. They check the clock every half hour to see if it’s quitting time yet. They don’t push themselves, because they don’t see value in their work, which means they don’t see value in developing themselves. They spend their time sleeping, eating, and working—and do very little actual living.

The people who buy-in see opportunities to grow their skillset; they see value in each hour they work and know they will get a return on their investment. They spend most of their time living and know the value of being present with their work. When they encounter stress, they see it as an opportunity to learn something new, not a challenge to put off.


Money Talks, Bullshit Walks

If you’re going to talk about how great of a (welder, millwright, pipefitter) you are, you shouldn’t be standing around, avoiding work. If you’re as great as you say you are, let your work speak for itself. Put up or shut up, because money talks and bullshit walks.


Don’t Dish It Out If You Can’t Take It Back

Just because someone likes giving it, doesn’t mean they like taking it. This was said with a few more colorful words—I’ll let you assume what those are.

It works both ways. Treating others how they want to be treated (the platinum rule) doesn’t mean they want to be treated the same way they are treating you. If you don’t like how someone is treating you, kindly let them know. Most disagreements can be resolved quickly with clear communication.

If someone is bird-dogging you (common in the skilled trades when someone is watching over your shoulder to make sure you are “doing it right”) kindly let them know your mutual interests (getting the job done right) and how their best intentions are getting in the way of you doing your job.

Temporary Discomfort = Mindful Appreciation

There’s a Zen saying that goes something like: you don’t appreciate not having a toothache until you have a toothache. 

Temporary discomfort provides an opportunity to reflect on all the things we do have. Waking up without a backache feels wonderful the 360 days of the year we don’t have a backache. Appreciate not being sick, not having that ingrown toenail, not having a stomachache, and every other temporary physical and emotional pain we encounter.

Likewise, time away from loved ones is hard. Workers in all industries spend time away from their families. We miss the people we love. When we see them, we appreciate their presence more than we would if we could see them every day. 

Bonus: If you’re a first-year apprentice running around looking for a sky hook, a bolt extender, left-handed screws, tins of elbow grease, a glass hammer, dehydrated water, or a bucket of steam, keep looking. I think I saw one in Ferm Alley by the anti-combustion tanks.  


More than luck,



 Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at and on Twitter @andrewjwilt

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