Monday, February 6, 2012

Trading on Blue Collar Blues

So... what do YOU do for a living?

It's the question I dread whenever meeting new people.  After all, considering the abundance of under-employed liberal arts majors these days, saying I'm a freelance writer is as impressive as saying I'm a garbageman.

Although being a garbageman is far more lucrative a career.

(And yes, I'm being politically-correct with "garbageman."  Have you ever seen a garbage "woman?")

I even debated about attending a Super Bowl party last night because, as I perused the E-vite list, I noticed a number of names I didn't recognize.  So that might have meant, at multiple points during the evening, having to run through the same tired schpeel where I gloss over the fact that I can't survive in the real employment world, so I call myself a "freelance writer."

Yee.  Haw.

I went anyway, and fortunately, managed to hang out with only those people who already know me, and know that I'm woefully under-employed, so none of us talk about it.  Then today, I came across Cate MacDonald's timely blog entry for Mere Orthodoxy in which she discusses the dearth of not only blue-collar workers themselves, but our respect for them.

Perhaps here in Texas, where blue collar workers are easily hired among our still-vibrant pool of illegal laborers from south of the border, and in the Northeast, where plum union wages likely attract plenty of blue-collar labor interest, the likelihood that America is running out of electricians, plumbers, and welders isn't as acute.  MacDonald provides a link to testimony cable TV personality Mike Rowe gave to a Senate subcommittee recently.  In that video, Rowe articulates the prospect our national economy faces of aging skilled laborers retiring faster than new entrants for their fields can be found. 

He gives no facts to back up that scenario, and certainly, no major media outlet has picked up on the trend and considers it an eminent threat to our way of life.  But even if Rowe and MacDonald are wrong on that score, and there are still plenty of blue-collar guys - and gals - out there to fill our country's need for plumbers, electricians, carpenters, welders, stonemasons, and such; Rowe and MacDonald rightly encourage a more respectful consideration of this often-marginalized class of workers.

First, it's true that when you meet somebody these days, your impression of them is significantly crafted on what they do for a living.  When somebody tells you they're a music professor, for example, or even a lawyer, you think of them differently than if they'd told you they were a welder.  Plenty of socioeconomic studies have been done to tell us how bad we are to judge people differently just because of their work.  But we still do it.

Then there's the education push that starts with our parents and continues all through school, from pre-K to high school and beyond.  And yes, there's always a beyond, into graduate and post-graduate school, even multiple times, because we're indoctrinated to believe knowledge is power.  It's money.  And it's impressive.

But knowledge is no guarantee, is it?  If there's one fallacy about capitalism, it's that skills, competence, and knowledge don't always pay you a living wage.  How much more of a high-wage guarantee is a PhD. in engineering, for example, when these days, it's not so much the amount of one's wage - but one's ability to earn a wage - that our economy is having a hard time providing?  You'll always need somebody to fix your air conditioner, replace your transmission, run electrical lines, and repair sewer lines, but you might not always need an engineer on standby to draw new schematics for any of these systems.  Or there might be an engineer living in a Majority World country who can redraw those schematics for a fraction of the cost of an American-based engineer.

Meanwhile, it's pretty tough to get an electrician in Bangalore to get into your backyard and run a new electric line to your house.

While her content has its compelling parts, other parts of MacDonald's treatise merely point to common fallacies in America's labor dynamic.  For example, she references an article in the New York Times from last week in which experts in offshoring complain that American workers aren't as good as their foreign counterparts.  She mistakenly employs the quote, “It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather... 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...”

With all due respect to the American manufacturers who hold this view, I strongly suspect it's not the "flexibility, diligence, and industrial skills of foreign workers" that have "outpaced" their American counterparts."  Rather, the willingness of American employers - from corporations to individual households - to pay for Americans to do the same amount and quality of work has significantly declined.  That's why there's been the unprecedented explosion in America's offshoring of jobs.  Companies discovered they could avoid American labor laws and work rules - not to mention competitive wages and rewards for competency - by taking advantage of workers in countries that lack - or ignore - similar laws and rules.  They've been able to mask this human rights shell-game by benefiting from the ability of just about anybody anywhere to acquire manufacturing skills, and thereby make it appear as though Americans can't keep up.

One wonders if the comparatively low pay scale of executive compensation in these Majority World companies will one day wipe most of corporate America's middle managers out of their climate-controlled office suites, as has happened in our manufacturing plants.  Just as greed can chomp its way down the corporate ladder, it can also chomp its way up.

This has been the bane of globalization, and will continue to be until companies begin to regard all workers - whether in Syracuse or Shanghai - as worthy of the same rights and privileges.  Granted, the cost of living can vary widely between Syracuse and Shanghai, but working conditions should not.  Overseas workers are generally more desperate for work, since their own governments and economies are far more ineffective and corrupt than ours, and since labor laws and human rights advances don't protect them from unscrupulous bosses and dangerous working conditions.  It's a lot easier for American corporations to shrug their shoulders at the immorality of letting foreign workers toil in conditions Americans wouldn't tolerate by simply bemoaning the differing cultural expectations of Majority World workers too unfortunate to know the health and salary standards their "betters" in America were getting.

Even if many unions representing manufacturing workers didn't take the threat of globalization seriously enough, and refused to accommodate corporate America on wage concessions necessary to keep more jobs here.

Still, the basic premise that America is grinding our blue collar trades into the gravel parking lots of our abandoned factories and continuing socialization hierarchies remains a valid one.  Perhaps in a trickle-down economy, the money that highly-educated workers earn - theoretically, anyway - eventually filters down to what we'd conventionally consider to be the lower-education work force through the services we need from them.  But with a college diploma becoming standard for many secretarial jobs these days - not because secretarial jobs demand the proficiencies college degrees provide, but because we think a diploma makes one a better person than an average tradesman - it's not hard to see where Rowe's brave new world, where blue collar labor becomes so scarce their labor charges become even more astronomical than they are now, is closer than we may think.

Here, too, the government needs to realize that many younger people who might otherwise take the blue collar route may be discouraged by the daunting obstacles of proliferating government regulations, exorbitant liability insurance, inconsistent state standards, and the way illegal workers undercut sustainable wage scales.  Most trades are deployed through small businesses, yet these days, America's federal bureaucracy thinks it knows how to run those businesses better than they do.

Of course, knowing many parents will recoil in horror if their kids announce they're dating a plumber or mechanic doesn't help advance the blue collar cause in North America, either.

Then again, knowing your unmarried Twentysomething is dating somebody with only a college degree makes some parents shudder, too.
 
One of my former bosses used to love saying, "some people are educated beyond their intelligence."  If we end up with too few skilled tradespeople in the near future, who will my former boss be talking about?
_____

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