City Journal Summer 2015

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Joel Kotkin
Wanted: Blue-Collar Workers « Back to Story

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Its about time people figured out that growth does not happen with all chiefs and no indians.
i find it ironic that the 'replacements' that karen wright speeks of are in her own backyard. the city of mount vernon, in knox county ohio. the dilemma is that most people don't want to work for a temp agency for an unknown time in the hopes of being hired. i should know because i know many of ariels employees. since i live in the community. this article went viral as soon as it hit the first employees e-mail box. when posted on the shop floor it was quickly taken down.
i happen to know that no machinists on the shop floor at ariel make 75k unless they are adding in insurance benefits or working 15+ hours of overtime every week. try the math at $22 an hour. the only way to become a machinist is hands on. not in a book or classroom.
Move your factory to Oklahoma. We have the highest rated (and have for 30+ years) vocational education program in the world. That's part of the reason why Oklahoma has one the lowest unemployment rates in the USA. There is a very intelligent work force with a superior work ethic waiting for you here.
As a tradesman myself, let me add my nickel. Another reason that it's hard to get young, middle class men interested in manufacturing and trade work is the near total absence of females compared to the numbers found in white collar and creative fields. The coed workplace brings drama and intrigue that a bunch of guys working together can never match, no matter how well they get along.

Having experienced this myself working in retail (low paying but fun), as well as a part-time stint in a bar (even more fun), I can vouch for the above statement. One reason that I didn't get into the mechanical trades until the ripe old age of thirty was that I had no desire to work with "a bunch of old men" - my words at the time, as I recall. So I have to agree with some of the previous comments that good pay or not, factory work is going to be a tough sell.

Nice to have a cheery note for a change.
I suspect the comment by Ric Locke hit the nail on the head. Training is expensive, and firing trainees who don't work out is both economically and emotionally traumatic. To set up a training program, you'd really need to give an aptitude test to identify the smart people who could learn these skills -- but then you'd be sued by the EEOC.

Heck, the university where I once taught was threatened by the EEOC with a lawsuit for racial discrimination because it didn't have enough professors in a certain diversity category. In that year there were only three new PhDs granted in the entire nation in my academic discipline to people who could have provided the required diversity -- but we told that unless we set up an affirmative action plan with teeth in it, we would have had to go to court to prove that we were not biased.

It's a shame, because an apprentice program could give some talented minorities a very good opportunity -- if only we weren't so wrapped up on getting the percentages to match the general population.
Very glad to read this breath of fresh air in the midst of the usual, glum narrative from the New York Times and its ilk ("Manufacturing jobs are going away, evil corporations are sending jobs overseas") and the usual deranged counterpoint ("Facebook and the Internet will save us"). But I agree with several of the other posters that corporations need to train if they want skilled workers. I work for a company that invested over a year at a full salary for me to learn the ropes, and now their investment is paying off. If companies need someone to "hit the ground running" (their favorite phrase in job listings) then they had better be content to take what they can get.
What Ariel should do is find smart young, mature high school or community college attendes and interview them for appitude and attitude until they have enough candidates to offer specific traing on specifc tasks mostly those that are highly repetitive and train them using the other workers on the actual equipment.
I'm a 73 year old retired Toolmaker. I did my best to re-invent this wheel in the 70's with high school kids. These students were thrown "over the side" by their teachers and I took them in and taught them how to earn a living as machinists. They were not only taught how to be at work on time, but also how to diagram a sentence....something they were not taught in school. As I look back on those years, I never thought this problem would still be with us!
Never happen. For the last forty years, this country has been sold on the educational premise that everyone should - and could - get a college education. That it is an insult to suggest that someone might make a better electrician or carpenter, as opposed to obtaining a graduate degree in gender studies or acupuncture. We can see the results of that in gathered around the country, angered that they have this immense student debt, and no possibility of getting a job.
Martin L. Shoemaker December 10, 2011 at 2:04 PM
There's a bit of a false dichotomy here. You compare the demand for skilled manufacturing workers to the demand for unskilled computer programmers (and other fields). And I'm sorry to break the bad news to young graduates, but "college educated" often means "unskilled entry level". My company can't find programmers with the right skills, but plenty of applicants who have only the basics. I hear the same story from friends and recruiters.

That doesn't invalidate your point at all; rather, I think it broadens your point. Our education system is producing generalists (at best), while the market is demanding skilled specialists.
I suggest a radical idea. If you can't find new hires that are ready made for your position, maybe you should TRAIN THEM. Too long have companies just assumed that potential employees tailor made to their specifications and prejudices would just fall into their laps. You can only skate on taking advantage of other firms' training budget for so long.

I've read a lot of articles complaining about the lack of skilled labor. When did people forget that skilled labor comes from unskilled labor once you have taught them something.
Alena Hromádková, Prague December 10, 2011 at 12:39 PM
Yes, investing in a good apprentice system or secondary technical schools can be part of the solution of the problems.The lower level technical institutions represented small part of traditional system of education that worked under communist rule but did not survive it.Now are also in decline and mushrooming of the new second/third rate colleges contributes to the growth of unemployment and new ways of debilitating of common sense.
As the world's largest economy, it's puzzling to me why we aren't making more of our own products.

It would make sense for us to become more self-sufficient. As we're seeing, this global economy thingy isn't working too well. There is no reason for us to suffer from supply disruptions half a world away when we don't have to. The same goes for economic disruptions in other countries.
Hi Joel,

This is a problem which comes up from time to time when businesses complain that they cannot find trained people. It is periodic, so are the posited solutions.

Those who have some public access try to get public education to focus on their problem. It's a free shot.

But it would hardly work for most businesses because the needed skill sets are too varied.

The needed skill sets are too varied, so businesses end up poaching skill from their competition, and training their own people.

The canonical example is the computer revolution in Silicon Valley. Successful companies find a way to do extensive training.

If Kirk's company can not do that, the company is history.
Brad: You're quite correct, but the notion of training runs into two problems, one superable, the other probably not.

Companies are concerned that they'll spend a fortune training a new worker, only to have the newly-skilled person leave for a competitor because the other company didn't pay for training and consequently has more in the kitty for wages. That can be handled by correctly-formulated employment contracts, but nobody tries that because of the second problem.

The insuperable problem is that about the time a training program starts paying off, some lawyer somewhere (probably in Government) will discover that it promotes an insufficiency of left-handed black transgendered lesbians who speak Spanish at home. The resulting lawsuits and penalties may very well kill the company, will undoubtedly damage its position in the marketplace due to bad publicity and consequent loss of sales, and are extremely likely to be career- and salary-killing for the executives who set up and run the programs.

You may hold your shrieking outrage that anyone should say such a thing. Pervasive knowledge that such outrage is inevitably forthcoming is the reason company execs don't voice that objection -- and whether they say it out loud or not, it's the single biggest rock in the road.

This article substantiates my experiences as a recruiter for manufacturing industries.

For those who mourn an absence of labor unions and their supposed training, you need to wake up. That dynamic hasn't existed for many, many years and was always suspect because of the nature of advancement. A youngster did not get to move into the "journeyman" role until someone older left. Skill, productivity and attitude had no part in advancing the younger worker at a union plant.

The ancient role of guilds and apprenticeships had merit but even today would face conflict with the pc crowd -- look at the kerfluffle Gingrich created by suggesting that poor kids be asked to do a job in order to qualify for government welfare. And it's correct to bemoan minimum wage regulations as entry level job killers. Companies cannot afford to "sniff out" a youngster and pay him regulated wages. Remember, employers have a labor burden that far exceeds what the entry level employee sees in his take home check.

The macro problem is that physical work has been tragically degraded in our culture. Yet this kind of work is the most easily able to reward someone with a sense of achievement. I use the example of yard work in making the case to associates. What can you do by yourself with limited tools in a short period of time that is more satisfying and uplifting to your surrounding's appearance than mowing and weeding a portion of your yard? If you have another job in mind please share it.

That said, I have often asked engineering job candidates what their hobbies are; did they have a summer job when they were in high school; and who does the yard work around their house... and you'd be aghast at how sedentary their personal lives are and how much "hobby" time is spent in front of a crt with game boy or a basketball match.

Putting the responsibility on K-12 or even community college education at this point may be difficult. The kind of mentors that are needed to encourage the "co-creator" role of man in God's universe that Michael Novak among others write and talk about is not likely to be found at the secular cesspool that we call public education. Nor are you likely to find "can-do" adult personalities within those halls. More likely you will find distortions like those mouthed by politicians who have never worked and count pickup basketball as their sole, worthy afterschool activity.

This is where we need to be more assertive as parents, mentors, and business people in our communities and churches and civic clubs. This is where Rotary, Kiwanis and chamber of commerce groups should be asserting our too long neglected value of a good day's work.
Another article on the skilled labor shortage . .
I forwarded this info to my grandson who is a college sophomore who has yet to decide on a major of studies. This is a great article and an eye opener. Not only are college grads not getting what they expect and that they pay way too much for, but they're getting an education that is filled with liberal, progressive influence and ideas.
How many of these companies expect these hires to know almost everything when they walk in the door? What kind of training are they giving to their employees? Many of the companies in my area that "can't find qualified workers" expect people to apply that already know every detail of the job they would be doing when they walk in the door, and are investing in little training at best.
Seems that degree in arts history or french literature has little hope in the world of reality.
why dont they establish appprenticeship programs then?
Does the responsibility for the shortage not fall back on those who have helped create it. Everyone is quick to blame everything but themselves. Businesses etc have been so busy tightening their belts to make money for the stake holders that they no longer take on trainee's, cadets, apprentices - call them what you will, to train them up to what they do need them to do. Pay them less, of course, but might help improve unemployment even more, and help up-skill the work force over a period of time, to required skills (not the educational book skills we have all been told are so essential). We are suffering similar problems of skill shortages her in New Zealand (and I hear Australia also). How do we think our fathers (and mothers) learned....
jessefan in chapel hill December 08, 2011 at 8:23 PM
Excellent eye-opening article. "Too much of what is called "education" is little more than an expensive isolation from reality."-Thomas Sowell
Mr. Kirk must have read or was aware of Dr. Sowell's observation of higher education as it relates to the real world and the work place.

Interesting. Thanks for this.

Our school district in CT dropped vocational training in High School a few years ago. The reason wasn't enrollment, and it wasn't due to to budgets. It was because teachers wanted more time to teach students how to take some standardized test that the state uses to rank schools.
Benn Gunnl

Then I suggest the unemployed work for less than minimum wage. It's better for nothing and the experience is always useful for the next better paying job.
My local education establishment is charging valiantly into the last war by canceling the high school metal and wood shop courses, and investing in more political indoctrination courses. Good thing we have centralized experts in the government to make the right decisions for the country.
Nice to hear the employers whining, just try to get a job, no experience, no job. They will not train. Employers are the spoiled brats. At the same time, because they can get in under the bar of minimum wage and benefits, immigrants are moving into many small businesses, getting valuable experience and knowledge.
This isn't just a US issue. With the exception of Germany, most western economies have dropped the ball as far as vocational education is concerned. There is a view, backed up by economic data, that nations with higher numbers of graduates perform better. The consequence of a deliberate push by Governments to increase the numbers of young people in higher education is that it is now easy to find a media studies graduate to work in your call centre, but its hard to find a qualified mechanical engineer, a welder or a bricklayer to come and fix or build something. At the moment the answer has been immigration. Most countries rightly welcome skilled migrants. The UK construction industry fundamentally relies on highly skilled eastern European labour and the recession won't change this.

If this is going to change then we need to rebalance the education system and challenge the idea that a degree is always the best thing. If we don't do this then, even if the Sino-American wage gap does close (and I think that 5 years is optimistic), China (and India) will have vast numbers of highly skilled workers. The skills gap will be even more profound a challenge than the wages gap was/is.
Unions, which American companies have been so anxious to be rid of, used to provide apprentice programs. Those days are long gone. There is no way the education system can adapt to the changing needs of specific industries. Besides it isn't the governments responsibility to train workers, that's the job of the businesses themselves. There are plenty of GI's coming home, who will need training and jobs, in the next few years. Seems like a goldmine of good workers for a truly responsible real American business.
Is there some reason that the word "immigration" isn't used in this article?