Why we should all be craftsmen now

Kirstie Donnelly, Managing Director at City & Guilds explores the concept of craftsmanship in the world of work.

Thanks to my friends Professor Bill Lucas and Dr Ellen Spencer at the Centre for Real-World Learning, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about craftsmanship. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be a word that’s very relevant to modern society, conjuring up images of master builders and people (always men) hammering away at pieces of metal or wood. In fact, I spent a while getting fixated on the non-sexist alternatives to craftsman that can better reflect the world today.

However, in their report “A Practical Guide to Craftsmanship”, Bill Lucas and Ellen Spencer try to make sense of the word craftsmanship in today’s world. To them, we are not talking about craftsmanship in terms of beautifully made products (although that’s important and increasingly desirable in the world today) but as a set of qualities and attributes that can be taught.

The central thrust of the research is that, contrary to popular belief, people are not born demonstrating excellence in a particular area. Whether or not it takes the 10,000 hours of practice to achieve this, as Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his book Outliers, the point is that craftsmen and women have developed a mindset and a set of qualities that enable them to improve their skills and become expert through practice and focus. Rather than looking at craftsmanship in its traditional sense, the researchers have focused on the concept of developing a “craftsman-like attitude” and identified three strands of thinking around the concept of craftsmanship: it’s learnable; it’s about “becoming“; it’s about the culture.

Craftsmanship Transcends Crafts

What’s so exciting about this idea is that it opens up the concept of craftsmanship to all industries. No longer is it only relevant to call someone a craftsman if they work with wood or jewellery for example. The research suggests that an IT consultant has as much right to apply the craftsman label to him or herself as a hairdresser or a business administrator. Instead of being linked to a particular type of skill, the word implies that an individual is focused on doing the best job they can do in whatever work they might be engaged in.

Let’s now take this concept and see how it can be applied to the world of work. We are all well aware that the job for life is well and truly gone. People are much more likely to have portfolio careers these days and the rise of the freelance or gig economy means many workers are choosing these flexible careers. There are many positives to this style of working for both people and business but perhaps we risk losing the time needed to really develop the expertise required for certain roles. In a world of multiple careers, how easy is it to fit in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice?

Pursuing Excellence

If instead we focus on developing the craftsman-like attitudes outlined in the research, we can bring a focus and awareness to everything we do and aim for excellence and doing the best job we can whether it is a short contract or a lifelong career. The best place for these attitudes to be developed is in education. Focusing on the further education sector, the report suggests that FE tutors need to be experts at their craft as well as great teachers and keep up their industry skills and knowledge so that up-to-date skills can be passed on to students. There should also be stronger links developed between education and industry and FE should look to higher education where there is already a strong tradition of partnering with industry to further research and development.

Craftsmanship is an important concept for those trying to improve employee engagement. It stands to reason that if you are engaged and focused on the job you are doing, you will be happier and take pride in a job well done. Without craftsman-like qualities such as attentiveness, absorption, a keen eye for detail and an ability to set and achieve demanding goals, today’s fast paced world can encourage people to move quickly from one task to the next without ever excelling in anything.

So the next time you are admiring a beautiful ceramic, or an artisan loaf of bread, why not think about your own job, whatever it may be, and ask yourself whether you can find your own inner craftsman?