Monday, November 26, 2012

Cheating the American Dream

In my last post, I cited Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column about how high tech jobs that pay well were going unfilled due to American job hunters’ lack of skills. I was attempting to make the case that a return to the inclusion of vocational training in our high schools was  needed to boost our economy and improve the prospects of many Americans. Not two days after I posted, Adam Davidson, also reporting in the New York Times, wrote an article that cut the legs out from under my argument. Davidson wrote about employers lowballing wages for high skill workers. His piece included the demoralizing fact that shift managers at McDonald’s make more than workers with needed high tech skills.

According to Davidson, “Nearly six million factory jobs, almost a third of the entire manufacturing industry, have disappeared since 2000.” Much of that has been because of higher productivity due to increased computerization of manufacturing equipment. Of course Friedman and others have been making the case that though those jobs are likely gone forever, the computerized manufacturing tools still needed people to program them and guide their operation. That’s where the high tech skills come in.

All of that goes out the window if, in fact, manufacturers are successful at keeping the wages lower than those for non-skilled work. This seems, on the face of it, to be taking advantage of people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a position of low leverage. But just as much it seems like a self-defeating proposition for the manufacturers as well. After all, someone has to make enough money to purchase whatever it is that they are manufacturing. Even as tough a capitalist as Henry Ford realized that he benefitted when he paid his workers enough to buy one of his cars. Hopefully this is a temporary blip, and market forces will drive wages for high tech jobs up.

Regardless, it is long past time for American business to get past the greed is good mythology which Gordon Gekko sermonized about in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.  Stone surely never intended for Gekko’s greed to resonate in a positive way as it has seemed to in the last few years. While greed certainly motivates entrepreneurs to do the heavy lifting needed to make a business succeed, it has its limits.

One of those limits will be forcing itself on our attention if we don’t find a way to replace most of the jobs that have been lost in the Great Recession with ones that can support a middle class existence. The American dream has long been a promise that hard work will lead to success, and forcing so many people out of the middle class makes a mockery of that dream. More selfishly for employers, though, without higher pay, what is the incentive for students to work hard in school and get that next higher level of training? It is not hard to envision a downward spiral that weakens our economy and further erodes America’s competitiveness.

America led the way in constructing a nearly universal, free, public education that was critical in fostering the beliefs central to the American dream. If all we have to offer, however, is a choice between going to college or the dismal prospects afforded by low skilled jobs at fast food restaurants and big-box stores, we create a cutthroat competition that will benefit a select few and condemn the rest to a lifetime of meager hopes.

Hopefully, our better natures will rise to the top and remind us once again that paying workers a wage commensurate with the skills they have worked to attain will benefit the workers as well as improve the long term prospects of the company that hired them.

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