A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn’t a lack of funds. It wasn’t a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.
In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.
In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel ready" jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.
In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a "good job" into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber — if you can find one — is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.
I came here today because guys like my grandfather are no less important to civilized life than they were 50 years ago. Maybe they’re in short supply because we don’t acknowledge them they way we used to. We leave our check on the kitchen counter, and hope the work gets done. That needs to change.
When Rowe spoke of his grandfather, I couldn’t help but think of my own dad and his preternatural ability to figure out all things mechanical. I do agree with Rowe’s point that we, as a society, have greatly undervalued skilled labor.
I can imagine that in a few generations, all we’ll have in the U.S. is middle management. It’ll be like a large rowboat with 10 guys w/bullhorns shouting at the 1 guy doing the actual rowing.