Can We Save the American Middle Class?

Can We Save the American Middle Class?

Here’s a statistic that tells an unusual story: In the last 25 years, adjusting for inflation, the U.S. economy has grown 83% – but the average American family’s income hasn’t grown at all. Here’s another: During the economic recovery, roughly twice as many low-wage jobs have been created as middle-income jobs.

In other words, the American middle class is weakening.

You can blame the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis, or the long-term impact of government tax and regulatory policies, or the globalization of trade. But there’s another root cause, one that it intricately tied to the others: the loss of manufacturing jobs in America. 

Manufacturing was, for much of the past century, the key to middle class growth. Immediately after World War II, manufacturing workers represented about 30% of the total workforce. Even as late as 1977, they accounted for 22% of nonfarm payroll here. Factory jobs were, for years, the key to economic vibrancy in towns and communities across the nation. 

In most communities that’s no longer the case.

What Happened?

It’s not a coincidence that the middle class in this country has been stagnating at the same time careers in manufacturing have become both less popular and, of course, less numerous. When discussing the challenges of maintaining middle-class status, experts point to a growing number of trained, skilled workers having to take unskilled, low-paid jobs after recent recessions. They spotlight students raised in lower-income households not finding the opportunity to gain key skills that would help lift them up, while students raised in upper-income households opt for a life of law, finance and medicine rather than engineering or other technical careers.

Says Jim Tankersley, a Washington Post reporter who recently wrote about the plight of the American middle class, “A healthy middle class … is a precious resource in the American economy. For the past 25 years, America has been neglecting that resource instead of nurturing it.”

But politicians who want to find creative ways to rebuild the middle class may feel stymied.  After all, manufacturing was the foundation of wealth and innovation here in the post-World War II era. But over time we neglected the educational tools needed to replenish the middle-class workforce – and thus, undermined our ability to sustain a competitive manufacturing employment base.

How? Our culture marginalized manufacturing as a career. In the years following World War II, as the prosperity generated by our industrial base became expected, middle class parents decided that manufacturing wasn’t sexy enough as a career for their children. A four-year college degree became synonymous with the American dream, even though many who graduated remained mystified on which career to pursue. Meanwhile, high schoolers who weren’t bound for college found that the vocational classes designed to teach technical skills were becoming stigmatized. Taking vocational coursework in effect made a statement that the student wasn’t “smart enough” to go to college.

The impact of all of this: a dramatic decline in interest in manufacturing generally, and more important a reduction in the number of people demonstrating interest in learning the necessary skills needed for a technical career.

Manufacturing Can't be a 'Consolation Prize'

As the cartoon character Pogo once famously observed, we have met the enemy and he is us. Manufacturing was for decades the key to middle class success. But, as Snap-On CEO Nick Pinchuk has observed, “The American dream of middle class is slipping away. Manufacturing jobs are the key to the middle class and they’re disappearing.”

Pinchuk is on a crusade to revitalize the middle class by targeting the root problem: education and training. While federal politicians debate every issue – from taxes to immigration to trade policy – as if the survival of society depended on them, Pinchuk says these are in fact micro-issues. The one macro-issue of our era is workforce development – or, more specifically, designing educational strategies that foster the necessary skills and interest in children and young adults to enable them to build careers in science and math, along with engineering and technology. 

If we want to rebuild the middle class, we need our political and social leaders, along with parents, to encourage technical careers. “We can't have people believe that technical careers are a consolation prize,” Pinchuk says. We must overcome the perspective that manufacturing jobs are the "salvation of the disadvantaged." We – parents, teachers, politicians, and HR professionals – must talk about technical jobs as being desirable and important to society.

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