Made in the USA

A few weeks ago I watched this testimony given by Mike Rowe in front of the Senate. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. If you haven’t already seen it, watch now. It’s only 6 minutes long and well worth your time.

Rowe’s speech impressed me because it isn’t, at it’s core, about policy, but about values. At the heart of his talk is a fundamental economic problem facing the United States, “We talk about creating millions of shovel ready jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.” I couldn’t help but think that most of the girls I know wouldn’t ever consider dating a plumber–myself included. My hunch is that this prejudice has developed because we’ve become so used to specialization and outsourcing that we figure someone who has chosen a certain job is no good for anything else; therefore a professor must be smart and interesting, but a plumber is merely someone who messes around with pipes; boring and probably a bit dim.

But since when did the life of our minds have to dictate how we made our living? Have we become so poor at being self-taught or multi-faceted that we assume we are our jobs? Or, perhaps worse yet, has valuing strong minds made us too proud to work with our hands, so that we struggle through part time teaching jobs or terrible freelancing gigs rather than just get dirty and make a good living, helping to build our country while we’re at it.

Perhaps it seems odd (or even hypocritical) that this is what I’m writing about on a blog published by a lot of highly educated white kids, all of whom use their brains more than their hands to support themselves financially. But in the last couple of years, I’ve found myself one of several communities of friends who have all earned Master’s degrees, been granted fellowships, achieved 4.0s and honors distinctions, and are now unable to make a living.

This same theme has come up in some of the conversation surrounding Apple’s manufacturing processes. Last week the New York Times reported that the fact that foreign labor is cheaper is now not the primary reason that American manufactures are employing them; it’s because they’re better. “It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.”

My dad’s a salesman by trade but an engineer at heart; he owns a company that sells a lot of things made of metal that make machines turn and move and stop and start. His industry keeps him right in the thick of manufacturing, building, mining, and generally, people who do stuff that make our world work. He’s been telling me for a while that all any of my friends need to do to get a job that will support them for life is learn to weld. The problem is, no one knows how.

 

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  • http://smorgasblurb.wordpress.com Chris Horst

    Great post. I think these industries need to bind together like dairy farmers (“Got Milk”), pomegranate growers (“POM”), etc. and rebrand these blue-collar occupations. Because you’re right. Our future depends on the mentality shifting.

  • http://smorgasblurb.wordpress.com Chris Horst

    Had I actually watched the video BEFORE posting this comment, I probably would have posted differently. I let my excitement about this post outpace my discretion! :) Glad that there are good people out there who are well-ahead of me in terms of creative ideas to elevate the trades.

  • Cate MacDonald

    Thanks Chris. Rowe suggests something like that in the video, a massive PR campaign for skilled labor. I hope it happens. Chrysler’s Halftime in America ad from the Super Bowl yesterday was, I think, a good example of the kind of campaign needed.

  • Jon Brown

    This is a subject that I’ve been pondering for quite a while. I think there are three issues at work here. First, the way that our current education system works is to throw a great deal of information about a wide variety of subjects at students who may or may not be particularly gifted in those areas. They are assessed on a competitive, broadly universal scale and assigned a corresponding grade to indicate their success at holding to the standards of that scale. Our society teaches them that worth is found in making A’s in all of the categories of learning, without regard to the individual learner’s thoughts, needs, desires or aptitudes. This occurs for 13 of the first 18 years of their life. During the last four of those years, that same system tells them that in order to achieve success they must *MUST* attend a four year liberal arts college, where they will be required to receive more non-targeted, broad education in a variety of subjects for which they may or may not have skill, given grades, etc. They are told this entire time that all of this will be relevant and useful and help make them more successful in life. This is a lie. The vast majority of college students would benefit far more from a household budgeting class than they would a class on 18th century English Literature, but the latter is required. Why?

    Second, our society is fast becoming one where every single person is trying to get something for nothing, mostly from the government, but from elsewhere as well. This is what Republicans mean when they talk about an entitlement society. People are becoming more comfortable with other doing for them what they could do for themselves, and so the value of hard work (which I’m given to understand welding is) is rapidly becoming lost. Our youth are becoming lazy and self-indulgent, confident that someone else will take care of them when they need something. Why do something difficult when you can subsist by doing nothing at all?

    Third, and this is much more conjecture on my part, our society values careers that make us sound interesting at cocktail parties. Regardless of the difficulty of welding or fixing toilets, the task itself has no ethereal complexity to it that can be explored in polite social circles, where talking about anything deeper than the world around you is a faux pas. You either fix toilets or you don’t. When someone asks you the inevitable American question “What do you do?” they are looking for two things. First, they want to know if they make more money than you. Having satisfied that, they want to explore the way your career impacts the world in a larger sense, reflects its virtues, redirects its vices, etc. And they want to sound intelligent doing so. Imagine the following responses to the question “So, what do you do?”

    Person A: I’m a plumber. I fix broken toilets, unclog drains, etc.
    Person B: Oh, how interesting. I once had a plumber do something at my home… and the focus remains on Person B for the rest of the conversation.

    Person A: I’m a professor of gender studies at a small, unacredited college no one has ever heard of.
    Person B: Really? Cool. What do you think of the role that women will play in the upcoming Republican primary?

    I’m pretty sure most of us would spend more time talking to the second person than the first because we can talk to them longer about less than we could the first.

    And that’s why I think technical schools are a great idea for most people.

    • Cate MacDonald

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Jon. It’s a weird problem we have as a country, because I understand the ideals behind liberal arts education. Our educational standards developed as they did because we wanted good citizens and good people. In order to build a strong society we needed to teach people their history and how it effected and developed poetry, philosophy, mathematical theory, and music. I know that it’s good for people to learn the liberal arts and I wouldn’t necessarily trade them for training in skilled labor, but I don’t think we need to. Historically, one learned all these things much earlier and more thoroughly, while learning life skills at home (including household economy, cooking or farming). By the time children were 17 the few elite would go to college, the rest would learn trades.

      Grading essays for a freshman college class was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever done, because it’s not like we’ve given up on the vocational arts because we’re training super geniuses in the liberal arts. These kids can’t write or think well OR weld.

      The answer: Homeschool. Seriously.

    • Cate MacDonald

      Oh and I think you’re totally right about people wanting something for nothing and the cocktail party thing. I imagine being interesting at cocktail parties is a stronger motivating factor than making a living for many.

  • Kyle Smith

    I think part of the reason we might posses this glut is because, historically speaking, anyone could be a handy man but only a few people could be lawyers. School cost a lot of a money and only a few could afford it. But our economic situation has changed such that now pretty much anyone can have access to a decent state (there are some out there) college education.

    In general wages are supposed to reflect the economical situation of demand and supply for a given talent. Back in the day there was a relative high demand for lawyers in relation to the supply. This leads to high wages. Now, that has changed and lawyers are considered to be in a high over supply, wages are dropping to the now remarkably low salary of $60,000 for the rare 20 or so percent who get hired.

    I think this same scenario is playing out with the blue collar jobs. Originally there was an over supply of labor relative the demand. But now, since the supply is low and demand is high wages should increase and lead people to enter these industries. IF…people can overcome their prejudices and, as other people have said…decide they want to work.