The Knowledge Worker Myth vs Blue Collar Reality

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,,, at 8/27/2010 12:53:00 AM
Never let it be said that there's no art to blogging. Alike in the offline world, there are talented folks who know how to weave a compelling narrative out of a mundane story, and there are those who weave a mundane narrative out of a compelling story. Today, I will of course try for the former--as I always do ;-) IMHO, something that separates a good blogger from a pedestrian one is an eye for something everyone else misses...

Once more demonstrating that you don't have to look far for IPE-relevant material, I came across this featured story on Yahoo!'s front page yesterday. There it was staring me in the face: a pretty damning indictment of what I've been taught all my life. Like me, you probably grew up in a generation that disdained blue collar work. That is, work which actually involves physical exertion and being good with one's hands has been frowned upon. It is not that these biases were made up on our own; our parents also had a role in drumming in the message that "manual labour" was something dirty. Hence, many of you are also of a generation told that lawyers, bankers, businessmen, and the like had it made. The white collar life was supposed to promise the land of milk and honey.

Certainly, academia has had an interest in propagating this story since it provides fodder for ensuring a steady stream of tuition-paying students in law, commerce, and business. Various American commentators like former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan have constructed an entire narrative out of "knowledge workers." In recent times, that has meant training to be a software engineer or some other lofty position that makes the most of conceptualizing abstract ideas and similarly high-faluting rhetoric. The truth, though, is much less compelling. Take America (please). Not only are there scores of unemployed college graduates there, but wages of college graduates have been on a downward trend since 2000. So much for the college myth.

The aforementioned Reuters article rubs it in further by pointing out that, actually, the skills which are most in demand worldwide are not those requiring fancy college degrees but fairly "mundane" blue-collar certification:
Workers with specialized skills like electricians, carpenters and welders are in critically short supply in many large economies, a shortfall that marks another obstacle to the global economic recovery, a research paper by Manpower Inc (MAN.N) concludes. "It becomes a real choke-point in future economic growth," Manpower Chief Executive Jeff Joerres said. "We believe strongly this is really an issue in the labor market."

The global staffing and employment services company says employers, governments and trade groups need to collaborate on strategic migration policies that can alleviate such worker shortages. Skilled work is usually specific to a given location: the work cannot move, so the workers have to.

The shortage of skilled workers is the No. 1 or No. 2 hiring challenge in six of the 10 biggest economies, Manpower found in a recent survey of 35,000 employers. Skilled trades were the top area of shortage in 10 of 17 European countries, according to the survey.

While the short-term way to address to shortages is to embrace migration, the long-term solution is to change attitudes toward skilled trades, Manpower argues. Since the 1970s, parents have been told that a university degree -- and the entry it affords into the so-called knowledge economy -- was the only track to a financially secure profession. But all of the skilled trades offer a career path with an almost assured income, Joerres said, and make it possible to open one's own business.

In the United States, recession and persistent high unemployment may lead parents and young people entering the workforce to reconsider their options. The skilled trades category also includes jobs like bricklayers, cabinet makers, plumbers and butchers, jobs that typically require a specialist's certification.

Older, experienced workers are retiring and their younger replacements often do not have the right training because their schools are out of touch with modern business needs. Also contributing to the shortage is social stigma attached to such work, Manpower argues in its paper published on Wednesday.

A poll of 15-year-olds by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found only one in 10 American teenagers see themselves in a blue-collar job at age 30. The proportion was even lower in Japan. Education could address that stigma. Students should be reminded that blue-collar work can be lucrative: skilled plumbers can make upwards of $75,000 a year, Manpower argues. Overall, Manpower's fifth annual talent shortage survey found 31 percent of employers worldwide are having difficulty filling positions due to the lack of suitable workers available in their markets, up one percentage point over last year...
And there's also the problem of developed countries reluctance to accept more migrants despite a lack of workers with the requisite skills:
Examples of successful, targeted migration include an Ohio shipbuilder that brought in experienced workers from Mexico and Croatia, and a French metal-parts maker that hired Manpower to find welders in Poland.

Obstacles to such migration include differing standards for certification in skilled trades, as well as political barriers to immigration, which remains an "emotive" subject in many countries, Manpower's CEO said. Japanese employers, for example, have difficulty attracting skilled workers. Sweden, on the other hand, is innovative and aggressive about strategic migration, for example by removing obstacles to workers being recertified in their specialty, Joerres said.
Coming from a country that is a large sender of migrants, I myself work on these issues of international certification and similar qualifications. In the end, all I ask is that we be allowed to compete on a level playing field despite obvious disadvantages of relative poverty and the need to traverse often vast distances away from hearth and home. For obvious reasons, though, many of those in the West would rather not extend the opportunity to foreigners to compete for qualifications on similar terms. I prefer to think that hard work will help me overcome prejudices in a white man's world.

At any rate, do read the Manpower publication Strategic Migration - A Short-Term Solution to the Skilled Trades Shortage discussed in the article above as it is quite illuminating, Manpower certainly knows its business as it is the second largest staffing company in the world. While lifting limits on migration in order to combat global slowdown is certainly of interest to me, the fact that much-maligned blue collar work is actually what's in short supply should be a wake-up call to others. Perhaps higher education is a fraud foisted on me that I've helped perpetuate. It's not a comforting thought, but hey, sometimes the truth hurts but needs to be told.

* * *
On my walk home, I usually pass Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Dirty Dancing, and Legally Blonde. Obviously, the Brits are fond of making musicals out of blockbuster movies. Guess what's opening soon in London's theatre district? I kid you not: Flashdance: The Musical [!] Critics have always disparaged this movie and its plot that beggars belief. IMDB's plot summary sums it up nicely:
Alex Owens is a female dynamo: steel worker by day, exotic dancer by night. Her dream is to get into a real dance company, though, and with encouragement from her boss/boyfriend, she may get her chance. The city of Pittsburgh co-stars. What a feeling!
OK, so I too thought Flashdance was more of a vehicle for the 80s soundtrack than the other way around. The new musical is in the same vein: more a platform for catchy 80s songs than plot-driven drama. Still, it begs the question: if a musical featuring a hackneyed tale about a welder can be made into a London musical, what is there stopping blue collar trades from being made "glamorous" as well? It's a task of changing perceptions that begins with parents who influence their offspring's career choices. I personally believe that unemployment is unglamorous, so the blue collar stigma is undeserved.

Ultimately, perhaps it's those of us with degrees in higher education who are the real dummies. Moreover, I suspect this world would be a much better place if there were more welders than, say, investment bankers--whether they choose to be exotic dancers at night or otherwise. Young son or daughter, in the immortal words of, er, Irene Cara, take your passion...and make it happen.

UPDATE: Kindred over at IPE@UNC suggests that I was mistaken over a "few facts" about US income trends. Now Kindred's a good kid, but he is wet behind the ears as he tends to put words in my mouth and gets embarrassed for it. Anyway, I decided to look up the numbers for myself instead of relying on other's charts. Below are the figures for US income for those 25 and up for the years 2000 to 2008 from US Census Bureau tables P-16 and P-18. It doesn't matter whether it's the mean or the median or if you're male or female; real annual income has been falling there since 2000. It doesn't matter either if you're a college graduate or have a higher educational attainment [click to enlarge image]:

I guess the furriner is more familiar with US stats than the American. Also at grad school, you are taught not to compare apples and oranges, but he does so by quoting another data series and naively suggesting differences have something to do with using "mean" and not "median" data. The table above should shelve that schoolboy howler (and I even use the same data series!) Maybe Kindred should visit Singapore for I suspect the educational standard there isn't declining as markedly as it is in America. R-E-A-D-I-N-G comprehension suggests this post is about college prospects post-(US led) financial crisis, so there you go with regard to time frames. Oh well, it's good he at least recognizes income there isn't rising unlike before. As an educator, I find patience with the recalcitrant to be a virtue. Lastly, the point Manpower makes is that there are technical and vocational degrees that stand you a good chance of landing a job while there are many college degrees that don't. Again for the S-L-O-W learner, it's not college vs. non-college but in-demand technical or vocational degree vs. not-in-demand college degree. And don't get me started on this being a worldwide survey instead of another boringly parochial American one.

You have to wake up pretty early in the morning to put one over ol' Emmanuel, Wizened IPE Buzzard ;-)