In May 2011, Mike Rowe provided testimony to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. His testimony can be viewed here and can be read here. (For those who do not know, Mike Rowe is the host for Dirty Jobs, a TV show on Discovery where he takes on some skilled labor job and generally shows just how hard or gross (or both) it is. He’s also the voice for Deadliest Catch and several Ford commercials.)
In his testimony, in addition to talking about his personal experience(s) with the issue, Rowe detailed – as in depth as one can during a brief testimony to a Senate Committee – a growing trend and some staggering figures. Despite one of the highest national unemployment rates most living US citizens have ever known, there are jobs/careers that are continually unfilled in the skilled labor/trades sector.
I believe that this irony is due to a variety of factors; however, I think that the ideology to blame is the American Dream.
Most parents from a blue-collar job/background – or even those in white-collar jobs – want their children to have it easier and to do “better” than they did. Often the translation to “better” is to be paid more money. This is the premise, as boiled down to what is likely its basic essence, of the American Dream. “Better” may also translate to positions where one doesn’t have to engage in manual labor that can wear one’s body down prematurely.
My father is a mechanic (aircraft) and has also been a cop, worked at McDonald’s, and a DJ during his adult life – the latter three all at the same time early in his adult life in order to make ends meet. My mother has worked with the Census Bureau and has had various secretarial positions with colleges and law firms. Growing up in a household where my parents’ parents were working-class/working poor taught me a lot. I learned that it was often useful to learn how to do something so that I would not have to pay someone else to do it (“why pay someone to do something you can do yourself”). I was required to know how to change a tire before I could drive on a trip out of town on my own – a skill that was actually useful within two miles from home coming back from some errands with my mom. I’ve watched and helped my father fix PVC plumbing, copper piping, and various other household “fix-it” tasks. (When I smell that blue glue for PVC piping, it certainly reminds me of the power of smells and memory.) I was never discouraged from learning how to do these things. However, I was also never encouraged to take on a profession in skilled labor: college was the goal from the start. “Better,” in this case, was working with my mind and not my hands and theoretically making more money.
The reality, however, is that as a highly educated woman – I have a masters in community/clinical psychology and am a doctoral candidate in sociology of education – I don’t foresee making more than 60K a year to start when I go back to work full-time. I was making around 34K when I left full-time employment in 2004. With the cost of living allocations, it is likely that I would now be making around 43K a year (factored with a 3% cost of living increase each year) if I had stayed in the same position. I should have been able to secure a director’s position, which would put me at about 50+K by now. After being out of the full-time work force for eight years and factor in the “lost income” from that decision (determined by subtracting what I’ve earned from what I would have been earning), I have “lost” between $110K and $134K. By my calculations, it’s going to take me at least eight or nine years to break even – more time than I have been in school to begin with. And on top of that, I’m not guaranteed a job in this economy with my education. However, if I had training in skilled labor, finding a job would be much easier.
I have worked for the Federal TRiO Programs, both in the Upward Bound Program and the McNair Scholars Program. I am a first-generation college-student and according to at least part of the American Dream, I have fulfilled the expectations set forth. However, as a person who has advised students to go onto college, I also have a very firm conviction that college is not for everyone. I have firmly believed this since 2001 when working with students with a variety of talents.
I believe that a lot of students currently in college shouldn’t be there since they are there as an expectation – the next logical step: 13-16th grade, if you will – and are often unlikely to be aware of the amazing opportunity and privilege it is to get a college education. For those who debate that an education beyond high school is a privilege, according to the 2010 Census, only 29.9% of the population has a bachelor’s degree or professional/graduate degree (10.5% in that last category). The rarity of the degree should be sufficient proof to assert that such an education puts one in a privileged class of citizens (read: privileged, NOT better).
My point here is that if we are looking to empower our citizenry, to get our economy back on track, and to be certain that we have enough skilled laborers to do the jobs that many of us either don’t know how to do or would rather not do ourselves (e.g. plumbing, HVAC, or carpentry), we need to start directing high school students who express a desire to be in these fields in this direction. We need to change our attitudes towards these professions and workers and understand that it is a highly valued field, and thus should not be devalued work. We need to do a serious overhaul of our expectations for what the future can and should hold for our children and make sure that we give our youth the option to go into a field that suits them best, not one that makes the parent/guardian feel better about him/herself.
Lastly, we should consider investing in a retraining effort for those interested in learning a new skill who are currently out of work. Chances are, they’ll be financially better off and will be far less likely to lose their job again if they’re in the skilled labor sector.
We should put in a lot of effort in meeting this skills gap and filling the skilled labor sector. It isn’t going to fix itself and it certainly won’t happen overnight, after all, as Mike Rowe often says, “it’s complicated.”