Monday, September 01, 2008

Homage to mechanics, who labor in obscurity

happy labor day2

Deft surgeons of small engines are still in demand.

Bob Martin is a former Inquirer writer and editor

Today, when many will mark the end of summer with a beach bash, or will luxuriate in the advent of five months of football, I choose to focus on the grease monkey.

I use the term deliberately. If it were a description of an ethnic or racial group, it would be rightfully banished from acceptable vocabulary. But in that it refers to a group of workers - mechanics, in polite parlance - who operate on the edge of invisibility, there's no protest to be heard.

These days, I'm not sure if Labor Day should prompt celebration or mourning.

The American labor movement, which gave us the eight-hour day and the minimum wage, among other things, is bailing water from a leaky ship.

One of America's biggest exports is the outsourcing of manufacturing, information-technology and personal-services jobs to the Third World. Call mechanics what you wish, but one thing is certain: Their jobs are too immediate, too hands-on, too face-to-face to be shipped overseas.

Indeed, they join a long list of "anchored" workers - nurses, police, retail-sales clerks, day-care employees, to name a few - whose jobs can't be outsourced.

But what makes mechanics different is their obscurity. They typically toil in the off-limits back shops, where grease and gasoline permeate their skin, engine blades bloody their fingers, and temperatures are often stifling.

Balance all that with the constant demand for problem-solving and critical thinking, and you'll see why I choose to honor mechanics this Labor Day.

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