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.