Many of us are guilty. I am, too. You, probably.
In high school (and after) we mocked the kids who took shop. The “greasers” who got credit for wrenching on cars or welding or making cabinets. It was the 1980s and shop, along with home economics, became an elective in most schools.
Until the 80s, some practical life skill class was a requirement at most American public and parochial high schools. Only prep schools let students slide. But in the 1980s—perhaps influenced by the satire book “The Official Preppy Handbook,” schools across the socio-economic spectrum dropped shop from the mandatory list. Some dropped it altogether. At that point, kids who signed up for shop were signing up for blue collar work. They were hand-raisers for the mockers.
Cultural contempt for people who do actual work only increased in the three decades since shop became a dirty word. Movies, television, novels, comedians make fun of the people who build their homes, build and repair their cars, program their computers. put out their fires, fix their leaky toilets, and paint their walls. The smirking class scoffs at guys who take a shower at the end of their workdays.
At the same time, American culture has all but made a 4-year college degree mandatory. From Presidents of the United States to high school principals, the people we’re told to respect show little or no respect for the vast majority whose highest education ended in a prom. Yet, from the President on down, we depend far more on those who know how to make things than on those who “stare at their feet and think great thoughts,” as legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes once said.
The Post-Dispatch points out, there’s no incentive for schools produce great workers:
Public schools, meanwhile, are judged by test scores and the percent of students they send to college. Guidance counselors aren’t likely to push young people toward the plant gates.
Today, America has a glut of college-educated pizza deliverers and a shortage of forty-dollar-an-hour machinists and electricians. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlights the shortage of skilled labor in St. Louis:
Factories around St. Louis can find plenty of people for grunt jobs — lifting boxes, sorting parts and such. They have a much tough[er] time finding hands-on machinists, computer numerical control, or CNC, machine operators, toolmakers, industrial electricians, multi-skilled maintenance mechanics and other jobs that require math talent and a couple of years of schooling.
A recent national survey of association members found that 90 percent have moderate or serious trouble finding qualified employees.
So, jobs paying $20, $25 and sometimes $40 an hour are going unfilled.
If you think the skilled-labor shortage is an argument for open borders, you’d be very wrong. Skilled workers in Central America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East lead decent lives in their countries. Unless driven out by war or cartel violence, skilled workers don’t migrate illegally into the US–grunt workers do, the kind of workers America already finds in abundance.
A lot of those grunt workers are recent college graduates. CareerBuilder.com found in a 2014 study that 51 percent of college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require degrees. ZeroHedge.com found one (click here for full story):
Andrea Ledesma, 28, says her parents owned a house and were raising kids by her age. Not so for her.
Ledesma graduated from college four years ago. After moving through a series of jobs, she now earns $18,000 making pizza at Classic Slice in Milwaukee, shares a two-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend and has $33,000 in student debt.
“That’s not at all how life is now, that’s not something that people strive for and it’s not something that is even attainable, and I thought it would be at this point,” Ledesma said.
Her mother Cheryl Romanowski, 55, was making about $10,000 a year at her age working at a bank without a college education. In today’s dollars, that income would be equal to roughly $19,500. Romanowski said she envies the choices that her daughter has in life, but she acknowledged that her daughter has it harder than her. “I think the opportunities have just been fading away,” she said.
Had Andrea opted for machine shop class instead of college, she’d now have 8 years of seniority as a machinist earning somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000 a year. It’s unlikely she will find a job that requires her degree that will make up for the 8 years she lost in college and dead-end jobs.
While it’s true that the aggregate of those with college degrees earns more than the aggregate of those without, that statistic is deceiving. The college-educated number skews high because of ridiculously high salaries of a few. Skilled laborers without degrees are huddled together in a narrower range of salaries. In other words, the gap between a senior machinist and a Fortune 1000 CEO is way bigger than the gap between the machinist and the liberal arts major who sells pizzas.
Further, the college-educated pool includes all levels of education: doctors, lawyers, PhDs, etc. It’s not just those with a 4-year degree and no more. Plus, we don’t need as many Ph.D. historians as we need skilled machinists and electricians. The Department of Labor says only about 1/3 of American jobs require any education beyond high school.
So where do we go from here?
I think America’s attitude about real work is about to change. Donald Trump won on the strength of people who work for a living. To a large extent, so did Eric Greitens here in Missouri. So the people in power owe a big debt to the people who shower after work. Meanwhile, a growing number college-educated young people—the key demographic for advertisers and entertainment producers—can’t afford the products advertised on TV and Facebook. (Products made by people who took shop.) Smart marketers and television writers will soon realize that the actual key demographic in America is young skilled workers, not just young people in general.
As the leftist hysteria over 2016’s election quiets down (and it will), expect to see growing respect and appreciation for the people who work in blue-collar jobs. As college tuition continues to rise faster than inflation and faster than healthcare costs, expect taxpayers to demand that Congress slam the brakes on higher education spending. Some of that money will go to pay the debt, but some tax money can be returned to the states to expand shop classes.
Making America great again requires that America make things again—things that last longer than a pizza or an Old Fashioned cocktail. The jobs that Trump has promised need people who can lift a load and do the math. As one employer told the Post-Dispatch:
He’s picked new high school graduates, hoping to train them, but often found they lack basic skills. “It’s basically all math and hard labor. I have had kids that make the effort, but they don’t have the brain power.”
Calvin Coolidge said, “the business of America is business.” That was almost 100 years ago. Today, the business of America is jobs.
Let’s get to work.
Also published on Medium.