No matter how you might feel about Elon Musk's antics, SpaceX indisputably is one of the hottest companies when it comes to innovation. But in the focus on new ideas and sustainability, we might be blindsided to something right under our noses--to make all that innovation work, SpaceX and other companies rely on highly skilled tradespeople, not just individuals coming up with initial concepts.

From race car mechanic to rocket engineer

Take Chris Hoffman. Currently, he struts his knowhow at Stealth as a Senior Launch Engineer. It's his job be "the voice of the countdown" and run all the procedures needed to get the rockets safely off the ground. And before that from 2013 to 2015, with a friend helping him land an interview, he worked at SpaceX in propulsion, sitting on the team that built the Merlin Vacuum engines for Falcon 9.

 inline image

But Hoffman didn't start out dreaming of building rockets. He started out with high school vo-technical training as a machinist, then worked as a mechanic in professional race car shops. And from there, he went back to school and worked as an A&P doing heavy aircraft maintenance. That experience convinced the SpaceX team that he had a solid understanding of technical documentation and drawings, and that he was capable of handling pressure and deadlines.

The blue-collar bias threatening progress

Stories like Hoffman's shed light on a cultural conflict that doesn't get much discussion--trade jobs are often still seen as "less than", as though people who can work with their hands or have a specific skill somehow have settled or don't have the cognitive abilities those in the corner offices do. There thus is a massive emphasis on traditional higher education, and the stereotype of trade jobs as being messy, dirty manual labor still prevails despite technology rewriting how work actually gets done and the intellect required for it.

Yet, economic shifts are making it clear that college doesn't guarantee a cushy paycheck, the cost of college is skyrocketing, and boomers who once filled trade jobs are entering retirement, leaving a high demand for new workers. Companies and individuals alike are begging schools to bring back classes like shop and are scrambling to find resources to offer the specialized trade training their operations depend on. Tradespeople can come to businesses with wildly varied backgrounds, and the line between trade jobs and achieving innovation, as Hoffman admits, is blurry.

"Innovation is important, but so is having the people that can build, fabricate and produce those innovations," Hoffman asserts. "Hiring skilled technicians is one of the hardest things for us. We all need to show that learning a skill/trade is valuable, [as] is learning things in a work/informal setting. A college degree doesn't mean that you will be better at doing something than the person that learned it on the job."

And fighting the prejudices against trade work to enable more business success can start with the entrepreneurs and managers who are putting companies into the market.

"Promote the trades," Hoffman says, "but also make sure you take care of them. You can't on one hand be upset that you cannot find or retain great talent, while on the other hand not offering them the job perks, compensation and security people deserve to stay somewhere. A good tradesperson does more than just put things together. They help troubleshoot, they help drive production and maintenance efficiency."

But even as leaders offer tradespeople what they need and are willing to look at applicants across industries, the tradespeople themselves have to fight, too. Because what businesses are doing and producing now is so different and multifaceted before, they must have the confidence to try even if what they currently know or do doesn't fit a perfect construct.

"Don't be afraid to apply for jobs that you think are outside your skill range," Hoffman advises. "Does it want a few more years experience? Apply. Don't meet every criteria, but you are strong in some of them? Apply. Also, network. Aviation and aerospace especially are small worlds. I keep finding paths to new people that lead back to ones I worked with in years past. You never know where making a good impression will lead you."

It might be that we always see jobs in a hierarchy to some degree. But innovation has many different pieces, none of which can be dismissed. And arguably, if you don't have people who can do, who physically can make your concept reality, then your idea itself becomes moot. Even if your business doesn't require somebody who can build a rocket, there are tradespeople and skilled workers behind just about everything you use through the day, including getting you your Amazon packages on time or flipping the light switch in the office bathroom.

It's about time we respected that.