An App for Manual Labor?

The first job I ever had was at a Christmas Tree Farm. I was a freshman in high school, and my friend and locker partner asked me if I wanted to make a little money after school. His dad owned the farm, and he paid us $5 p/hour to haul and prep trees for Christmas.

We worked from 5-9 pm, and at the end I was handed a 20-dollar bill. The whole ride home, I was blown away. This was my money, money I’d earned by simply giving my time and energy. I could go to a movie and afford snacks. I could buy a basketball. Maybe a video game. I could buy whatever I wanted from the gas station. I loved it.

I worked a lot of Saturdays on the farm throughout my high school career. Each year, the wage went up, and I loved seeing an hour go by and adding to the total I’d made that day. But there was one job that was especially great.

Much more profitable than a Christmas tree, which takes 7 years to grow only to last a month in a living room, are trees that can be transplanted and added to a landscape. We called the process Ball and Burlap. For this, the boss would drive his Digger around, which was like a Bobcat with three large spades. Using it, he’d dig a 3-foot diameter root ball around the tree’s base, and place it in a basket. Once there, us laborers would tidy the roots, secure burlap around the root ball, and ready it for delivery. But before this could even happen, the trees had to be tied.

Tree tying is (maybe) the job I’ve been best at in my entire life. Using twine, you secure the branches in an upward motion, away from the base of the tree. Tree tying sucked, according to the boss. The tier would get pricked by the needles, and it was hard work. To incentivize this work, he paid by the tree - 50-cents for small trees, 75-cents for medium trees, and a $1 for large ones. The incentives worked on me, and I could earn upwards of $20 per hour on this task. I felt like a king.

Manual labor is something I’ve always liked. It made my body strong at a young age, gave a sense of accomplishment. It feels good to touch the earth. A side benefit is that it’s obvious if something is good or not. Painting: are the lines straight? Landscaping: is the product visually appealing? Building: is it sturdy and useful? The process is rewarded by the product.

I’d been out of the manual labor game for quite a while, until this past summer. The job I’m doing has a two-month break period from mid-May until mid-July, so I was looking for something to keep the finances stable. The manual labor job I got was a weeding job, which sounded pretty self-explanatory. See weeds pull weeds, I figured.

I expected to get some fresh air, be in the sunshine, and get outside and move. So it came as quite a surprise when the first thing I had to do was download the company’s App.

The way the job worked was that I was given a route. I had to hit each property every two weeks. The process was not at all what I expected. When I got to a property, the first thing I had to do was login to the app. Then, I selected the property and hit “start”. As I was there, a timer - using hundredths of an hour - counted the amount of time I was there, weighting it against the allotted time for the job. After finishing, I had to click “complete” and enter the amount of material I’d used on the property.

Perhaps you can tell from the tone, but I thought the job sucked. I had to wear long clothing and gloves, so I was constantly sweating. My hands would sweat through the gloves, which wasn’t good for my phone. It barely worked when I touched the screen. I was logged out of the app on almost every property, which stopped the time. So’d I be sitting there, sweating, fumbling with gloves and a phone. Looking down rather at the beautified landscape. But I digress.

In addition to sucking, this was a completely new thing for me.

I’m sure that in manual labor, like most other fields, the technology has been gradually incorporated until it has suddenly encapsulated all parts of the process. It just so happened that for me, at 39, the weeding job came 25 years after my first bout with manual labor.

I ended up quitting. The money was really bad, I ended up having to spray pesticides more than taking care of the earth, and the chemicals burned my back. You cant get a lower position at the company than weeder. I discovered that all aspects of their company - including shoveling - are logged into the app.But the thing I kept thinking about was: man this is different. And then I thought: so much of life is different.

I’ve been toying around with this idea (which is coming in my book) about the changes in almost every aspect of life that have occurred over the past 25 years. It’s come gradually during the actual days, but has gone so fast over the years. How we do nearly everything has fundamentally changed, and few people stop to think about how these changes have affected us. We should.

The next several parts in this series will be looking at what’s different in life. I’m not going to make the grandest of conclusions, but I’d encourage you to think about some of these yourself.