On Friday, The New York Times featured a front-page story on the skills gap that has U.S. manufacturers struggling to fill job openings, despite rampant unemployment. The piece explains that companies can't fill positions because of a mismatch between the kind of skilled workers needed and the ranks of the jobless. But it fails to address two critical issues: first, the fact that this problem in manufacturing has been a long time coming; and second, the reason the gap exists in the first place is because American society has lost respect for hands-on work.
Before the recession, a huge majority of manufacturers said they were suffering from a shortage of skilled workers. According to the 2005 Skills Gap Survey of the American Manufacturing Workforce, 81% of respondents said they faced a moderate to severe shortage of qualiﬁed workers--nearly unchanged from the 80% who reported a shortage in 2001. For years, organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers, Fabricators and Manufacturers Association, and even the U.S. Department of Labor have been sounding the skills-gap alarm and working to spread the word about growing opportunities in these industries. And as Baby Boomers have retired, few young people have acquired the necessary training to take their place.
But should we be surprised? American society celebrates the virtual, becomes ever more screen-focused, and lionizes white-collar careers. Meanwhile, a popularly held notion assumes that all blue-collar work is low-paying and unskilled, or that it's all moving overseas, or is somehow no longer necessary. The reality is that many meaningful, highly skilled, well-paid jobs in the trades and in manufacturing continue to go unfilled.
John Ratzenburger addressed this in an Investor's Business Daily Op-Ed last week, asking, "When did 'blue-collar' become a dirty word in America?":
Negative media images of skilled workers--what I call "essential workers"--pervade our culture. Educators, employers and community leaders are slowly becoming engaged in efforts to counter this dangerous trend that glamorizes "celebrity" and "corporate" living at the expense of skilled trades that offer a good living to those who choose to work with their hands and minds.
Now, the recession is serving up a serious wake-up call. Tumultuous times provoke change. People today are recognizing that our American identity--our economic power--does not exist solely on Wall Street. It also exists in the tradition of innovation and in the muscle and sweat that built the nation, and continues to sustain it. After all, where would we be without plumbers, electricians, welders, elevator repairers, and lathe operators? Still, because of the long-standing social stigma against manufacturing and hands-on work, young people have turned their backs on these industries as options for meaningful work that provides a secure future.
Is it too late to bring value back into hands-on work? Let's hope not. Education is a good starting point; we need to debunk the myth that kids have been fed about how the only way to have a solid career, to make enough money to support a family, is to go to a 4-year college. These days even mechanically inclined students are discouraged by well-meaning parents, teachers, and guidance counselors from pursuing a career in hands-on work, despite an economic environment that leaves many college graduates unemployed and underprepared--not to mention the staggering percentage of young people who don't make it through and end up in debt with no degree. In fact, a whopping 40% of those who enroll in college don't get a degree within six years.
Perhaps the best advice for the unemployed, with or without a college degree, is to learn to recognize opportunities in unlikely places, including in fields that employ both body and mind. (Yes, it's a misconception that blue collar-work requires all brawn and no brain.) But while the best jobs in these arenas require significant expertise, skills can be learned on the job, just as office work is learned through internships and entry-level positions. One sector to watch is green-energy technologies. Rapid growth of these industries will continue to create more jobs, as well as more responsible manufacturing techniques. After all, industry and environmentalism are not mutually exclusive. And integrating our high-tech knowledge with our skills for making things will make possible the development of new, efficient, environmentally sensitive systems and products.
Ultimately, Americans need to stop looking at career options with blinders on, and need to recognize that the landscape of opportunity is much greater that we think.
As we've shifted away from regarding the making and fixing of things as honorable work or a viable career, this country has been losing a piece of its soul. Now is the time to change course. To achieve a better-balanced economy, not to mention society, we need to find ways to foster mutual respect between people who do hands-on and hands-off work. Shedding light on the often invisible craftsmanship performed at construction sites, in shops and shipyards, in vocational school classrooms and factories, in workplaces where occupations require both brains and brawn will give us an opportunity, in the middle of crisis, to not only re-embrace the work that built this nation, but to rebuild a sustainable economy for the future.