My Commencement Speech


Congratulations on your choice of a trade career!

Illustration depicting a roadsign with a beginning or ending concept. Blurred dusk sky background.

This month the news media has been filled with stories of dignitaries addressing graduates at commencement ceremonies of various colleges. In these speeches the VIPs typically congratulate the grads and encourage them to go out and do some good for society.

It’s unfortunate that we never hear of these dignitaries making similar speeches to graduates of technical schools, apprenticeship programs and other milestones that mark the emergence of a full-fledged skilled craft worker. Allow me to fill the vacuum.

Skilled Trade Persons, congratulations. You have chosen a noble career path, one that is too often undervalued but crucial to the functioning of our modern society.

Look around you. You see magnificent buildings in every direction. People live in many of those buildings, in others they earn their livelihoods. Inside those buildings you will find plumbing, heating, cooling and electrical systems that would have been considered miraculous to our great-grandparents and prior generations.

Most people take those systems for granted. They flip a switch and the lights go on. They turn a faucet and fresh water pours out. They flush a toilet and human waste disappears. They adjust a thermostat and within minutes the inside temperature is exactly to their liking. In fact, nowadays, sometimes the thermostat adjusts automatically to their liking!

Like all mechanical things, those systems sometimes malfunction. Then who you gonna call? Ghostbusters! No, when a building’s mechanical and electrical systems go haywire, it’s never because of poltergeists or gremlins, although it may seem that way to people who do not possess the knowledge you have acquired of how those systems work. And only you know how to fix them.

As a Paul Simon song put it, “This is the age of miracles and wonder!” Guess what? People like you are the miracle workers.

Our history books pay endless tribute to the great minds that established our country, fought our wars and made so many other contributions to this great nation of ours. Alas, the history books mostly neglect the artisan skills that brought about the clean and comfortable lives even the poorest among us enjoy nowadays. All those buildings with their mechanical veins and arteries did not arise miraculously from the drawings of architects and engineers. You are the miracle workers who put them together through skill and hard work.

Not everyone has the ability to create, maintain and repair these wonders. Anyone can turn a wrench, but it takes a skilled plumber to put the pipes and fixtures together in such a way that water flows freely, and freshwater does not get mixed with wastewater. Anyone can light a furnace, but it takes special, detailed knowledge to make sure the fuel burns safely and efficiently to provide the desired comfort level. Anyone can connect wires, but woe to the person who does so in a way that sends deadly volts scorching their bodies.

Your work may result in dirty hands, sweaty brows and aching muscles. Take pride in that. These momentary discomforts are the sign of an unsung hero who makes modern life possible.

Congratulations on your choice of a trade career. Society depends on you much more than it does on politicians, social workers and assorted paper pushers who work in the buildings you put together.

The work you will do is supremely honorable and necessary. Most of you will enjoy incomes commensurate with the value you bring to society. But most of all, you will enjoy the satisfaction of looking at your work and saying to yourself: “I built that,” or “I got that working again.”