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Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Vocational Root Cause of This Recession

You can't turn on the television and avoid hearing opinions about how our economy came to its current state. And while it is true that speculation in real estate was rampant, fueled by poor lending practices and irresponsible buyers, there's a deeper root cause; we don't make much in the way of physical products anymore, and we don't really want to.

Two days ago in the New York Times David Brooks called this out wonderfully. In his Op Ed piece, "The Genteel Nation" Brooks points out that our change in thinking has given us "Great Britain disease" leading to the decline of our empire like that of our mother country centuries ago.

His thesis is dead-on; like Great Britain before us, we built our economy making things. We applied scientific knowledge of primary industries, and society's best and brightest engaged in those endeavors. Now 65% of graduates from the nation's top schools go into law, finance or consulting.

This isn't the first time we've heard this. In 1983 I was a graduate student in Texas listening to President Reagan's plan to globalize our economy; his vision eventually became the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which wasn't enacted until President Bill Clinton. The Democratic response to Reagan's speech was given by Senator Jim Wright of Texas, the Senate Majority Leader, who blasted globalization with a now prophetic comment, "We can't have a healthy economy delivering pizzas to one another."

When you think about it, that's pretty close to what's happened. Labor unions fought NAFTA hard, seeing that it meant the end of jobs that supported their organizations. It took three Presidents to get it enacted, and now two Presidents later we're debating how to turn around the demise of the middle class.

Where were those middle class jobs? Factories.

It's been almost 10 years since I was recruiting for skilled manufacturing talent, and even then it was getting tough to find. Sure, you can find assembly workers. What can't find are machinists, skilled maintenance workers, and electro-mechanical engineers. Right now we have 17 million unemployed while skilled trades jobs remain unfilled.

The casualty of globalization has been the American mindset towards work. I see this in the publishing profession especially; the idea that skilled trades are too blue collar and something you would never want to do yourself or have your children do.

As with most problems, this one rests between our own ears. While I'm too far into my own career to change, people in career transition and emerging high school graduates should take a look at vocational education. Machinists salaries average $41,000/yr; Engineering Salaries average from the high $50s to the mid $80s. Most good companies have education assistance programs, so a two-year vocational or engineering tech degree can land you with a company that will pay for your eventual engineering education.

Mostly we need to re-familiarize ourselves with the dignity of all work, not just white collar. Seeing manufacturing, mining, mechanical and technical trades as beneath us is the root of seeing the people who do that work as inferior. Candidly, if this post offends you or these options seem beneath you then you're part of the problem.

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