Rediscovering the Importance of Manual Skills for Survival and Career Success

Some time ago, the world was captivated by the miraculous rescue of three children and a baby who survived a plane crash in the midst of the Amazon rainforest. They were found after being missing for 40 days following the Cessna 206 aircraft accident. Sadly, their mother, the pilot, and co-pilot lost their lives, while the children were discovered 1.5 kilometers away from the crash site.

These four children were members of the Huitoto indigenous community in Colombia, who possess deep knowledge of the forest. The Huitoto people teach their community how to hunt, fish, and gather food from the forest from an early age. The survival skills they imparted enabled these children to construct shelters during rain and storms. They also utilized rainwater for drinking and could distinguish between toxic and non-toxic plant species. After their mother’s passing on the fourth day, the children managed to survive by consuming farina, a type of cassava flour they had brought on the plane. Subsequently, when their farina supply depleted, they sought help and sustained themselves by consuming fruits, seeds, and vegetation they encountered in the forest. Fortunately, they were discovered alive, albeit dehydrated and malnourished, by the Colombian military.

The skills possessed by these four children are likely not shared by the majority of modern-day humans. Yet, the ability to survive and adapt, including manual skills and physical activity, is crucial for self-preservation and overall well-being.

Throughout history, humans have exhibited extraordinary adaptability. Given the existing natural conditions, humans have demonstrated the capacity to employ their reasoning abilities to fashion rudimentary tools for daily necessities. Evidence uncovered at the Olduvai Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tanzania, reveals that environmental and behavioral adaptations have existed for over two million years. Researchers discovered the oldest stone tools, dating back two million years. During that time, early humans, with their manual dexterity, were able to survive and enhance their lives by creating safe and comfortable sleeping arrangements.

However, in this postmodern era, technological advancements have led to increased laziness and reduced physical movement among humans. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) for 2022, over a quarter of the global adult population (1.4 billion people) is physically inactive. Globally, one in three women and one in four men do not engage in sufficient physical activity for their health. This decline in human activity has increased by 5% from 31.6% to 36.8% in high-income countries between 2001 and 2016.

With the advent of technology, human physical activity has decreased. While human life has become easier, it has also made individuals lazier. For example, people no longer need to bother with cooking or walking to the supermarket for vegetables, which is just a short distance away. They choose to press a button on their phones, and the necessary items are delivered to their doorstep. With the discovery of new inventions such as cars, humans have become reluctant to walk even short distances. Moreover, there are now fewer individuals engaged in manual labor, which involves physical exertion of muscles and bones. Many modern-day jobs, including household chores, shopping, and other essential activities, are significantly lighter than those of previous generations.

Currently, humans move less and burn fewer calories compared to their predecessors. Research indicates that many adults spend over seven hours a day sitting, whether at work, while using transportation, or during leisure time. Individuals over the age of 65 spend 10 hours or more each day sitting or lying down, making them the age group with the least physical activity.

Due to the prevalence of brain-intensive jobs and sedentary lifestyles, individuals often forget how to act when faced with emergency situations that require physical capabilities. The decrease in physical activity is not limited to adults alone; schoolchildren also experience it. In schools, children spend their entire day sitting at desks, listening to teachers.

John Dewey, an American philosopher, believed that the source of discipline failure in schools lies in teachers frequently limiting or suppressing bodily activities, which actually distract the mind from the subject matter (John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 141). Dewey’s theory resonates with the current situation in the field. Although not universally applicable, many schoolchildren and even university students today focus solely on honing their thinking abilities. Meanwhile, their manual skills are underdeveloped and neglected.

Some time ago, there was a buzz about a fresh university graduate from a reputable institution losing out to a high school graduate when applying for a job at a company. Agus Sampurno, the National Instructor for Teacher Movements at the Ministry of Education and Culture, stated that such situations occur frequently because “many graduates do not know what they can contribute to the companies they apply to. In the meantime, vocational high school students are equipped with specific and adequate skills in their respective fields, enabling them to recognize their own potential,” he explained.

Vocational high school students excel because 60% of their learning consists of hands-on experience. If their major is in mechanics, they practice operating machines; if it’s in Information Technology (IT), they learn to create computer programs; if it’s in culinary arts, they try out different recipes, and so on. Vocational students not only learn theory but also directly apply that knowledge by producing tangible products or works of art. These jobs then become the students’ future jobs when they enter the workforce.

It is common to see university graduates facing unemployment because they were not guided during their education. “I’ve even encountered university graduates who don’t know how to write a proper cover letter—blank email bodies and unprofessional email addresses—despite it being a simple matter,” Agus revealed. On the other hand, vocational school and polytechnic students are guided by their schools or campuses to be job-ready in their respective fields. “Often, schools and campuses actively establish networks with companies, making it easier for their students to find employment.”

According to Agus, although graduates possess knowledge and theoretical analysis skills, they cannot rely on those alone. The ability to produce, operate, and manage things is equally important for job applicants. These are the skills taught to vocational school students. “Vocational school students are ready to be placed anywhere, like a screw on a wheel. Although it may be the smallest part, it is still valuable to a company,” Agus expressed.

Rediscovering the forgotten manual skills overshadowed by the glorification of knowledge as mere information accumulation and recognizing the advantages of hands-on skills in producing something should be prioritized, especially if we desire to master at least the basic survival skills in this uncertain world.