Labor Day 2014: The Status of Labor

"I am a friend of the working man," said the famous attorney Clarence Darrow, "and I would rather be his friend than be one."

Darrow's backhanded tribute reflects a curious ambivalence about working people even among those who, like Darrow, are committed to the cause of labor. Virtually everyone celebrates the vital contributions that working people make to our society, but there is always an unspoken assumption that people whose work raises a sweat are stuck on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. I have never heard parents express hope that their children will end up in blue collar jobs - not necessarily because they disdain labor - but because they aspire for something better for their children.

The first celebrations of Labor Day date back to the 1880s reflecting the desire of organized labor to raise the status of rank and file working people. If all of the Labor Day parades and speeches are to be taken at face value, this purpose has been achieved. All of our public servants are great friends of working people, or at least claim to be, but like Darrow, they would prefer to be their friend than be one. The perception remains that people who work with their hands are stuck at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

That perception is out of date. Rapidly advancing technology is changing the nature of work and its value in the marketplace. The assumption that a four-year college degree is an automatic ticket to economic success is no longer valid. The media are filled with the anguished cries of graduates who emerge from college with heavy debts and few job prospects. The streets are filled with taxi drivers with bachelor's degrees while people who actually know how to perform useful tasks - including manual tasks - are in greater demand. To the extent there are automatic tickets to good jobs they are increasingly found in community colleges where practical workplace skills are being taught.

I have written often about the skills shortage in manufacturing where good jobs go begging for lack of qualified applicants to fill them. To work in modern manufacturing, one must have a strong background in math, computer technology, science and at least some basic engineering skills. Young people who possess this background can look forward to rewarding careers unavailable to many of their college trained counterparts.

But manufacturing is hardly the only venue where practical workplace skills are increasingly in demand. There is a wealth of career opportunities for people who understand how the digital world operates. Beyond that there is rising demand for people with real world trades - plumbers, electricians, carpenters, machinists, mechanics, technicians - the entire gamut of traditional "manual labor."

Without question, advanced academics are vital to our future and always will be. But the marketplace is shifting away from academics in favor of practical job skills. In today's world practical skills are more in demand than abstract learning. These practical skills include individual initiative, dependability, ability to adapt, teamwork, problem solving, and the ability to communicate in written and oral forms.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. You may quote from this with attribution.