Skilled Worker Shortage
To Solve the Skilled Workforce Shortage, Manufacturing Executives Must Respect People Who Work With Their Hands

To Solve the Skilled Workforce Shortage, Manufacturing Executives Must Respect People Who Work With Their Hands

Working with your hands -- whether in highly skilled manufacturing jobs or the trades -- includes a set of skills that should be honored and supported. To recruit the skilled workers they need, manufacturers should recognize that. But if manufacturers continue to offshore these jobs, my advice to young people is to look to the trades for a high paying, secure job that can't be outsourced.

Over the last 30 years, the public mantra has been that everybody should go to college. The premise was, if you just get a college degree, you would get a job working with your brain rather then your hands.

At the same time, working with your hands had become uncool -- it's beneath smart young college kids. In the early 90s, high schools and grade schools eliminated shop classes. Instead they installed computer labs to prepare the students to be "knowledge workers" in the new "postindustrial service economy.”

But alas, the postindustrial service economy is not providing the family wage jobs, much less the security, that was expected. What the futurists didn’t see coming was the fact that any kind of work that is “rules based” can be digitized into data and transferred overseas via the internet to be done by bright young Asian students for 1/5 the cost.

Alan Blinder, an economist from Princeton, in 2007 published a  working paper that estimated that between 22% and 29% of all U.S. jobs were potentially offshorable.

Another study by Ashok Deo Bardhan and Cynthia A. Kroll at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that up to 14 million Americans now work in occupations that could reasonably be considered "at risk" for offshoring. These jobs include software programmers, radiologists, financial analysts, medical technicians, paralegals, and computer and math professionals.

A significant amount of evidence indicates that these jobs are leaving the country. Whether it will be 29% of all jobs is unknown, but a significant number of white collar “knowledge worker" jobs that were previously held by two-year and four-year college graduates are likely to go offshore.

Similarly, the manufacturing part of the economy also has been losing blue- and white-collar jobs. In this new digital age, large companies now have the power to source work from anywhere in the world and to relentlessly drive down labor costs. As a result, over the last 30 years, middle-class wages and living standards have been driven down.

In fact, many of the careers requiring advanced skills and journeyman status are going to become more and more in demand.

It appears that the postindustrial service economy may not be the answer for most people who want to start a family, have a satisfying job, and carve out their small piece of the American Dream.

Despite the offshoring of millions of jobs, there still are opportunities in manufacturing. Indeed, manufacturers are now in a jam because they have not trained the high-skilled workers they need and their baby boomer employees are retiring. They no longer need low-skilled workers; they need highly skilled people who have journeyman credentials such as in tool and die, mould making, and advanced machining, which are becoming lost arts in the U.S. Since many of the factories are highly automated, they also need people with the skills to operate, repair, maintain and troubleshoot the automated production lines.

These journeyman-type skills can only come from an apprentice program that takes thousands of hours to complete. As long as the company keeps the production line in the U.S., they will need these advanced-skill workers.

In fact, many of the careers requiring advanced skills and journeyman status are going to become more and more in demand. But so far corporations have been unwilling to fund the extensive training required to fill these jobs.

Getting a Job in the "Postindustrial Service Economy"

As distasteful as it may initially seem to some students and parents, deciding to work with your hands may be a good alternative in this changing economy. We still need people to fix our cars, rewire our houses, fix our broken power lines, paint our houses, teach us to play the piano, and bypass our clogged arteries. All of the people doing those jobs work with their hands and have skills that can’t be outsourced to foreign workers.

I believe that the real decision-making in the new service economy will be between jobs that have the potential to be offshored versus jobs that must be done face-to-face with the customer. As well, I think that that working with ones hands is not only a worthy career; it can give some people more job satisfaction and security then many other careers.

I believe that the real decision-making in the new service economy will be between jobs that have the potential to be offshored versus jobs that must be done face-to-face with the customer.

Another reason to consider working with your hands is to avoid the fate of being a corporate drone, locked in a small cubicle, with a computer and a phone -- and low pay.

Many giant corporations no longer have a compact with their employees. Instead, their primary focus is on shareholder value and continued efforts to reduce costs. Matthew Crawford in his article "The Case For Working With Your Hands," says many people trapped in this corporate world “learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is concrete the way it is when you, for example, are pouring concrete.”

These kinds of jobs lead to disillusionment and seldom give the employee a feeling of job satisfaction. As large corporations re-engineered themselves and reduced functions and jobs that did not deliver short-term return-on-investment, millions of people found out how valuable they were to these corporations when they found their names on the layoff list. There is no reason to believe that corporations are going to change in the future, which has created an atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity.

I believe there is honor and satisfaction in creating things with ones hands. This feeling is true for artists and artisans, and used to be true in manufacturing.

I believe there is honor and satisfaction in creating things with ones hands. This feeling is true for artists and artisans, and used to be true in manufacturing.

In 1953, I took my first shop class in the 7th grade at public school in Portland Ore. In 1956, as a sophomore in high school, I built a birch plywood coffee table with two drawers, for my mother. The joy of building things with my hands led me to pursue auto mechanics, scratchboard art, drawing, and eventually building my own woodshop -- in which I have built hundreds of projects.

Learning how to create things with my hands both enriched my life and my thinking. In my spare time over the years, I have designed and built furniture, buildings, decks, fences and hundreds of other home projects. As I gained confidence, I learned to lay roofs, make cabinets, thread pipe, install gas lines, lay tile floors and a myriad of other skills. I reached a point where I didn’t believe there was anything I could not build and enjoyed the feeling of being self-reliant in my home. I began to see working with my hands as an art form and recognized the true value of the people in manufacturing who were very good at it.

But in my 35 years in manufacturing, I always had an office job. As a manager, I found it very hard to go home at night with any feeling of satisfaction. Managing is an iterative process, where most results take months or years, whereas working at home with my hands produced tangible results quickly. Working with my hands became the therapy I needed to survive in the corporate world.

Being able to make things and work with your hands is a set of skills that should be honored and supported by more people. Working with your hands (particularly working for yourself) is an opportunity to combine all of your skills and interests into a job, and to live with the decisions you've made. It's also an opportunity to be your own boss and gain experience everyday, which adds more skills and brings more work. Crawford says, “There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual response to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face to face interactions between tradesman and customer.”

Working with your hands is not repetitive work, and most often working with your hands requires advanced reasoning.

Working with your hands is not repetitive work, and most often working with your hands requires advanced reasoning. The work can be interesting, useful and rewarding. I like to think that there is integrity in working with your hands and, more importantly, you may have a lot more control of your future then working in a corporation.

American manufacturing jobs are still in decline, and we are transitioning to the postindustrial service economy. But it does not look like this new economy will produce enough family-wage jobs for the middle class.

If the multinational corporations continue to close down plants and offshore jobs, they may not be a good target for a career. Rather, It may be time to take a fresh look at the trades, and convince college students that it may be a better career move to find a job working with your hands then getting a general degree and then being sentenced to the cubicle.

If you are committed to a four-year degree, you might consider taking summer courses in welding, carpentry or machining as job insurance. Crawford makes the point when he asks, “Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country.”

But the biggest advantage is that your advanced skills, hands-on knowledge and local customers are not going to be replaced by foreign competitors.


Michael Collins is the author of Saving American Manufacturing and his website is mpcmg.com

 

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