Wanted: blue collars
State and local leaders should take note of Bill Steigerwald's Q &A with Joel Kotkin. I've occassionally had my differences with Kotkin, but he's right on the money in much of what he says about the state of the American manufacturing industry. Here are some relevant quotes and my thoughts:
I have to tell you, almost every place I go in this country, particularly where the economy is growing, if you ask business people what is it that would really help them, they say "skills." Machinists. Welders. It's not like there's a Ph. D. shortage, generally speaking. But there is a welder shortage, there's a plumber shortage, there's a machinist shortage. But nobody wants to talk about this. Cities that have lost their industrial base don't want to talk about it, and many cities that still have it are almost ashamed of it. In one of the great historical ironies, the places where they are not ashamed of manufacturing are places like Houston and Charleston and Charlotte. But the places with the great industrial traditions, it's almost as if they are ashamed of their lineage.
Many Pittsburghers are so ashamed of their steel-making heritage that we wring our hands over a lousy football team mascot, and the mayor brags on national television--somewhat erroneously--that steel has completely vanished from the regional economy.
Kotkin's other point, about skilled labor, hits close to home as well. When I was still at the Tribune-Review, around 2000, I wrote a story exploring Pennsylvania's dearth of skilled and technical workers. (The Trib's archives are hard to navigate, but you are welcome to dig for it.) We are flush with colleges and universities (I now work for one) but we don't have enough technical schools, and guidance counselors and teachers turn their noses up at vocational high schools. Talented students are pushed into college no matter where their interests lie. But workers with technical training can earn as much as those with bachelor's degrees, and guess what? You can't outsource plumbing or carpentry to India.
But I think the reason that manufacturing -- particularly at the higher end, which is more and more what is there -- is so important is that -- going back to Jane Jacobs -- it is a classic export industry. If you are in Seattle and you are assembling planes, or if you are in Dubuque and you are assembling and building systems for building roads around the world, you are taking money from other parts of the country or the world and you're bringing that money in to your town. Most of the stuff that has been growing isn't doing that -- it's retail; it's health care, which is basically serving your own people. ...manufacturing is one part of what you have to offer...
Even somebody who's going to work in, let's say, an auto plant today, going forward is going to be more skilled because you're going to have more robots; it's going to be more computerized. So it's kind of misleading to look at manufacturing as a low-skilled industry. ...
States in the Upper Plains have basically fairly high education levels. A high school graduate in Iowa or the Dakotas is generally much more literate than a high school graduate in the Northeast or California.
So Kotkin presumably thinks that manufacturing is a necessary condition for a truly robust economy, and that a high level of basic and technical education is a necessary condition for manufacturing. Going back to my previous point, that puts us in a bind if indeed we do lack a good base of skilled labor. One of the things I was told when I did my story for the Trib was that professional labor is more likely to relocate than skilled, blue-collar labor. So if you don't have a homegrown pool of local talent, manufacturers will pass you by.
So what do we do?
I would try to find out if there are companies that are expanding. Are there companies that would like to expand? Are there companies that want to stay? Ask them what they want. We live in this dream world where we say, "Well, if we have a fancy stadium with sky boxes, that will keep businesses here." Well, what do you mean by businesses? Do you mean the gauleiters who represent multinational corporations, so they can hang out at a fancy football game? Or are we talking about somebody who's got 15 people working for him in a shop somewhere in the suburbs and would like to get to 30? What are his issues? Are they tax issues? Are they training issues? Are they regulatory issues? You've got to go ask! I don't see anyone interested in that anymore. It's all "What does some 23-year-old, footloose student want? Does he have enough jazz clubs to go to?" Or some footloose 50-year-old corporate henchman. "Does he have enough arts facilities?"
As a country, we're kind of delusional about our economies.
What Kotkin says here makes a lot of sense, but it would be easy for local and state officials to take his advice too far. We don't want to relax safety and environmental regulations just to please manufacturers, because the long-term costs could outweight the benefits. We don't want to give away subsidies and tax breaks, because they rarely give us a return on our investment.
What we do want to do is drastically re-order our priorities, and consider what we need to do--that we have failed to do thus far--to build a truly sustainable economy.
Happy Labor Day.