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Did Lack of Respect Lead to a Growing Labor Shortage?

May 02, 1999|David Kusnet | David Kusnet, a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, was chief speech writer for President Bill Clinton from 1992-1994. He is the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the '90s."

WASHINGTON — In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, because of a shortage of skilled construction workers, families are waiting several months to move into their new homes.

In Massachusetts, the state government is offering a $20,000 signing bonus for new teachers.

In Detroit, auto companies are worrying about what will happen when the current corps of tool-and-die makers, most of them pushing 50, retire in a few years.

In California, even after convincing Congress to let them import more foreign computer professionals, high-tech companies say they still can't find enough skilled employees.

These seemingly unrelated items tell the story of a still largely unexamined problem: In important occupations, from skilled blue-collar jobs to poorly paid professional positions, employers seem unable to recruit and retain good workers.

To the extent that policymakers have addressed this problem, they've offered two comforting but inadequate explanations. First, they say, a labor shortage is a good problem to have, a sign the economy is growing so quickly that it's swallowing up the supply of willing workers. Second, they add, if there's any problem, it's a "skills shortage": too few well-trained people to fill too many demanding jobs.

But what if other explanations are at work? What if our economy is unprepared to offer rewarding and stable careers to skilled workers without prestigious credentials? What if our culture refuses to respect the contributions of workers in unglamorous jobs--from computer "geeks" to construction "hard-hats"--encouraging ambitious people to overlook these occupations and pinch-penny employers to undervalue them?

A closer look at conditions in four of these jobs--construction, skilled factory work, classroom teaching and information technology--suggests that Americans downgrade the very jobs where skilled workers are in short supply.

In construction, for example, recent surveys by business groups, from the National Assn. of Home Builders to the Business Roundtable, find developers fretting about the lack of such skilled craft workers as carpenters, electricians, pipe-fitters and welders.

But it wasn't long ago that some of the same business groups, together with the Associated Builders and Contractors, were working overtime to drive down wages and drive out unions in their industry.

In large measure, they succeeded. In spite of a recent uptick, construction workers' wages, adjusted for inflation, are well below their high point in the late 1960s and early '70s. Union membership has declined as well, from 40% of the work force during the 1970s to scarcely 20% today. But lower wages mean fewer young workers are attracted to construction. The drop in union membership also means a decline in workers' skills, since fewer recent hires have participated in apprenticeship programs jointly operated by unions and contractors.

To be sure, the culture takes its toll, too. Young people who don't go to college are seen as "failures," and fewer native-born Americans want to work with their hands outdoors--at any wage.

Something similar is happening with skilled factory work. In the auto industry, skilled workers are mostly about 50 years old. They're nearing retirement in an industry in which workers qualify for pensions after 30 years on the job. Relatively few young people are taking their place.

As for skilled machinists, they're average age is also about 50, and many are approaching retirement as well. Only about 15,000 young people become machinists each year, leaving 30,000 jobs unfilled.

Just as the construction industry is paying the price for breaking its unions, such industries as auto and aerospace are footing the bill for downsizing their work forces. With the factory closings and massive layoffs of the early 1980s, many workers in skilled trades lost their jobs, and many companies disbanded their apprenticeship programs. This broke the long-standing link between generations of skilled factory workers. Even today, the memory of what happened to fathers, uncles and older brothers discourages younger folks from following them.

At first glance, classrooms seem worlds apart from construction sites and factory floors, but, with teachers, too, America gets what it pays for. As today's teachers retire, the public schools will need to hire 2 million new teachers over the next decade. Already, school systems say they can't find enough good ones. Across the nation, some 36% of public-school teachers had neither a major nor a minor in the subject they teach. About 6.5% of the new teachers hired each year come with emergency credentials. In Massachusetts, nearly 60% of current teachers failed a competency test, thus the state's $20,000 bounty for capable new teachers.

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