Reflections on community, manufacturing, and the skilled worker shortage
I grew up in a paper mill town. Three times a day the shift whistle blew. Everybody I knew kept time by it. The rhythm of my growing up echoed the rhythm of the shift change. Working at the mill was hard, dirty work, but the men who worked there were able to support families, buy a snowmobile and maybe a piece of hunting land Up Nort’. These were good, well-paying union jobs.
The American narrative, certainly in the ’50s and ’60s when I was growing up, promised parents that their children would be better off than they were and that they would get there through the shared sense of community responsibility that came out of the deprivation of the Great Depression. This involved educating their children for a role in the expanding professional occupations. I grew up with the understanding that education was a public right. This was what the mill workers paid taxes for, after all. Their children were entitled to it. They’d had to work damn hard to pay for it.
When I graduated high school in 1970, anyone who graduated in the top half of his or her class was guaranteed a spot in a freshman class in the UW System, including the Madison campus. I ended up at the Green Bay campus, where most of my classmates were the first in their family to get a college education. We were set to become members of the professional working class.
I’m ashamed to say I also had a certain amount of disdain for those people who had to work with their hands. It seemed a step backward. This attitude is only one of the things, though, that have prevented more people from entering skilled manufacturing. The kind of workforce the factories of the industrial Midwest need now is more skilled than it was when I was young. The jobs themselves have actually become more interesting and more challenging.
Although studies show that the majority of taxpayers still place an emphasis on the importance of public education, training in technical skills is undervalued in relation to college preparatory training. Students graduating high school without plans for college are too often unaware of employment or additional training opportunities that would prepare them for anything other than low-wage service jobs.
Public school funding has been regularly cut since the 1980s. Parents whose kids are in school today do not remember a time when that was not the case. Anything that is not core curriculum has been the victim of these cuts. Even in communities where most of the available jobs are working class, tech programs have been axed. Programs that remain are weak in the specific skill areas that are important to today’s manufacturers: pre-engineering, computer programming, and critical thinking.
Public universities have become more selective and more expensive, putting them out of the reach of many working-class families. Funding for training programs that allow these students to enter the skilled trades has also been cut. And then there are the currently unemployed and underemployed who are desperate for jobs but don’t have the skills to get them in the door.
There are costs and risks involved with retraining existing unemployed workers and training new workers in the longer term. The greatest risk is that whoever bears the burden of the cost will not be able to recoup it.
Business is reluctant to absorb the entire cost of bringing on unskilled workers and training them in-house for the necessary positions. If a particular worker does not advance to the necessary level, the entire training cost for that worker is lost. At a time when businesses need lower employee turnover more than ever, purposely hiring underqualified workers increases employee turnover.
Workers themselves are often unable or unwilling to pay for additional training without the guarantee of a job at the end of the training period. Even when workers are able to absorb the cost of a training program, one simply may not be available. Training skilled workers demands an educational infrastructure that is also costly.
One of the fastest ways to get people adequately trained is to provide more public funding of training programs and more, not fewer, financial resources for the public schools. Unfortunately, the changing American narrative makes this next to impossible. Somewhere along the line we have lost the belief in community that I was raised with. We’ve replaced this with an everyone-for-themselves, winner-take-all mentality. This is as bad for business as it is for people.
There are things about growing up under the spell of the shift whistle that I don’t miss. There was too great of an emphasis on conformity. Anyone with challenging ideas or artistic leanings was viewed with suspicion. There was an order to things that could be stifling, even to the kinds of problem-solving and innovative-thinking skills that manufacturing now desperately needs.
What I do miss is the strong sense of community I grew up with. The belief that we were all in this together and that none of us succeeds if we don’t all succeed.
My Grandma Hattie was widowed when my dad was just a boy. She raised Dad and my aunts and uncles on a widow’s pension. At the end of the month, when the money’d run out, she would put all the food she had left in a pot and make a stew. And then she would have all the neighbors over for dinner. It wouldn’t have dawned on her to do anything else.
Beth Plutchak is the founder of Beth Plutchak Consulting LLC, which provides business research, economic analysis, and training and consulting services. She writes about innovation and entrepreneurship on her blog All Else is Never Constant at www.bethplutchak.com.