Radio Shack and the construction workforce are disappearing for the same, sad reason

Updated Apr 30, 2014
Auto shop in the good old days at Cape Girardeau Central High School in Missouri. Credit: Ken SteinhoffAuto shop in the good old days at Cape Girardeau Central High School in Missouri. Credit: Ken Steinhoff

Despite a very funny Super Bowl ad and an attempt to catch up with the times by remodeling a few stores, Radio Shack is headed for insolvency.

The MSN Money story linked above lists a bunch of problems that retail experts have identified. But there’s a much larger problem for the company—kids today don’t want to build anything for themselves.

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They are passively educated and passively entertained with a cornucopia of electronic gadgets bought with mummy and daddy’s money and built in Asian factories.

Radio Shack’s original and core customer used to be the young man who was a tinkerer: ham and shortwave radio operators, guys who hacked telephones and built their own stereo components and even some early computer builders.

Kids don’t do that anymore.

Shop classes are gone. Vocational education is practically non-existent. Education is passive, all book and paper learning. Entertainment is a completely passive experience as well. Pride in something you built yourself has been replaced by pride in how far you’ve advanced in Angry Birds or Candy Crush.

In the 1960s and 1970s there were three types of guys in my teenage world. The guys who worked on cars and motorcycles, the guys who tinkered with electronics and the guys like me who couldn’t get enough of woodshop.

Everybody back then, or at least 80 percent of the guys I knew, had a hands-on hobby. It was part of your identity.

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The guys who were interested in electronics did some impressive stuff. Some of you may remember Heathkits. You could build a powerful stereo system from their components for about half the cost of a store-bought version. These were very popular, and the guys who built them justifiably proud of their work. Some of the guys I knew who did this sort of thing went on to successful careers in computers and electronics. Alas, there’s a Heathkit museum, that’s how popular it was, but the company went under in the 1990s.

If kids today don’t get exposed to hands-on activities in their teens, if they’re not forced by boredom or financial need to build stuff, it’s ‘highly unlikely they’ll seek out, or have the aptitude for the ultimate in hands-on careers, otherwise known as construction. No wonder then that the average age of a construction worker today is mid to late 50’s.

There is one outlier group, one exception to this terrible trend in the United States today. They call themselves “makers.” They have their own very successful magazine Make, a robust website, and even Maker-fairs, where the creative and the faithful gather to show off and compare notes.

The stuff they feature in the magazine is very impressive, but I get the sense that most of these makers are guys in their 20s and 30s. Nonetheless, the magazine, the movement is impressive, and fun. Check it out.

Alas, it’s probably too late for Radio Shack, even though makers are the ideal customer for what it used to sell. I sense Radio Shack, like so many dying companies, is in the grip of marketing mavens and consultants who always seem to circle like vultures above the soon to be dead animal, having no idea that the solution is right under their noses.


Editor’s Note: The photo above comes from Ken Steihoff’s collection of photos at Be sure to give his site a look. It’s a great piece of time travel.