Let's Reevaluate Hard Work This Labor Day

High unemployment and the growing skilled labor shortage are both symptoms of the same problem in our society -- namely, that we have a desperately skewed and devalued perception of hard work.
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155.7 million. That's the number of people 16 and over in the nation's labor force in May 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This group of hard-working Americans represents nearly half of our nation's 316 million people. Labor Day is, indeed, a great time to celebrate their effort.

It is believed the first observance of Labor Day was on Sept. 5, 1882. On that day, approximately 10,000 workers gathered for a parade in New York City. That event set a movement in motion. By 1894 more than half the states were observing some sort of workers' holiday. That year, Congress and President Grover Cleveland signed a bill designating the first Monday in September as "Labor Day."

119 years later, we still pay tribute to the social and economic achievements of American workers. Unfortunately, we have much to achieve with regard to educating skilled workers and effectively placing them into promising careers.

High unemployment and the growing skilled labor shortage are both symptoms of the same problem in our society -- namely, that we have a desperately skewed and devalued perception of hard work. For some reason, we have stigmatized and diminished the importance of people who work with their hands in this country. And we have allowed ourselves to believe that an expensive college education is the only avenue to success.

For more than a generation, we have encouraged our children to aspire to careers that would enable them to work with their minds and not their hands. So, it should come as no surprise that we have an estimated three million job vacancies in the skilled labor force today that are going unfilled because many people erroneously consider these positions to be beneath their potential or otherwise undesirable.

We are now dealing with a problem of our own making. In our attempt to spare our children from the drudgery of physical labor, we have become a society that no longer respects or celebrates hard work. We have become a nation of consumers rather than producers and we are beginning to experience the unintended consequences of this transition in more painful ways. But just as the national narrative seems to be hopelessly unswayable, an unlikely voice of reason has emerged in guest appearances on the national talk show circuit.

Mike Rowe, who is best known as the host of the Discovery Channel's popular show Dirty Jobs, has decided to lend his fame and notoriety to a larger cause. He is encouraging a broader conversation about our nation's relationship with skilled labor. He feels it is important to "make a case for the trades," and I applaud him for bringing recognition to this issue through his many appearances.

In the format of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe was able to travel across the country and take on the role of an apprentice to skilled workers in a variety of trades. In the midst of all the good-humored putdowns, he and his audience gained a very real education and appreciation for the many hardworking individuals who perform necessary and valuable services that benefit the rest of society.

In his talk show appearances, he describes his own experience as a high school student visiting the guidance counselor's office only to be shown a college recruiting poster that said, "Work Smart, NOT Hard." Well-intentioned advice that many students have received over the years, that has only served to "undermine our beliefs about an entire category of critical professions and has reshaped our expectations of a good job into something that no longer looks like work," according to Rowe.

His advice to young people just starting out in the workforce is to "show up early, stay late, and volunteer for the hard stuff." Within a short time "you will be running that organization." And to lawmakers, Rowe suggests that with one trillion dollars in student loan debt, "we are lending money we don't have, to kids who will never be able to pay it back, to educate them for jobs that no longer exist. And that's nuts!"

If we are to thrive as a nation, we must take action against high unemployment and the skilled labor shortage. We must reevaluate our negative perceptions about hard work and rethink what we have been taught about success. While a liberal arts degree is great for some, we must accept that not all knowledge comes from college and maybe an expensive degree is not the best path for everyone.

More young people should consider pursuing opportunities where they can use their minds as well as their hands. With even moderate research, they will find tremendous opportunities awaiting them. And we must also remember for every job that requires steel toe boots or heavy applications of sunscreen, there are just as many that require lab coats, lap tops and air conditioning. This Labor Day, in between visits to the charcoal grill, let's rethink the value of hard work and reexamine the many high-paying and gratifying careers in skilled labor.

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