The Vanishing Respect For Skilled Trades

MikeRowe2One of cable television’s most recognizable characters, Mike Rowe knows a thing or two about jobs, particularly jobs involving skilled trades and manual labor. On his Dirty Jobs program on the Discovery Channel, Rowe learns and then performs hundreds of jobs that require getting down and dirty. If you haven’t seen the show, he opens every episode with this quote: “My name’s Mike Rowe, and this is my job. I explore the country looking for people who aren’t afraid to get dirty — hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us. Now, get ready to get dirty.”

Last year Rowe spoke to the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee about what he sees as a need for change in the way Americans view the workforce. He believes that skilled trades are being relegated to jobs meant only for lower class citizens. He suggests that we are trying to push all citizens to earn four-year degrees, and leaving the skilled trades to, well, no one.

Rowe makes the following plea to the committee on behalf of all skilled workers:

“I believe that we need a national PR campaign for skilled labor…something that addresses the widening skills gap head on and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce. Right now American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions I’m told. And there are 450,000 openings today in trades, transportation, and utilities.”

Rowe gives an account of a U.S. governor who couldn’t move forward on the construction of a new power plant, not due to a lack of funds or support, but rather due to a lack of qualified welders. The host who has apprenticed in most all of the skilled trades ponders a question that is becoming more common over the past few years. “How can high unemployment exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage?”

We shouldn’t really be surprised about this, Rowe says. He notes that the vocational arts in high schools have all but vanished, and says that we’ve elevated “higher education” to such a level that any other form of knowledge has been labeled as something less important, or looked down upon. The vocational arts are now deemed a consolation prize best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree.

Click here to watch Rowe’s testimony and then consider, “What is my attitude toward the skilled trades?”

To read more about the shortage of skilled labor in America, read my earlier blog post about the Deloitte Survey: Qualified Workers, Not Jobs, Are Lacking from earlier this year.

Early American View on Job Training

I am currently reading “The Americans – The National Experience” by Daniel Boorstin, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Librarian of Congress. The book is part of his trilogy on the social history of America.

In his chapter on how innovative New England manufacturing methods were quickly putting American manufacturing ahead of old England, Boorstin wrote an interesting passage on the training of the American worker.

Boorstin writes:

The New England system of manufacturing, destined to become the American system, prized generalized intelligence, literacy, adaptability, and willingness to learn. As the machinery of production became larger, more complicated, more tightly integrated, more expensive, and more rigid, working men were expected to be more alert and more teachable. Open minds were more valuable than trained hands. Technicians and industrialists from England noted a new type of workman being created in the United States. The most skilled English mechanics, they regretfully confessed, showed such “timidity resulting from traditional notions, and attachment to old systems, even among the most talented persons, that they keep considerably behind.” In the American system, they said, “you do not depend on dexterity—all you want is intellect.”

It sounds like as far back as the late 18th century, American workers who were adaptable and willing to learn were as much valued as they are today.