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Thursday, March 01, 2012

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You are correct, the shortage of workers is a fake problem -- manufactured by the manufacturers, as it were. The real problem lies with the employers. It is puzzling why they seem to prefer concocting stories about labor shortages rather than training their workforce. It is equally puzzling why the media is willingly assisting them in perpetuating this fiction.

Not to mention that most of the new manufacturing machinery uses proprietary software and controls, making it difficult to just switch from one shop to another without some kind of additional training. Employers can't expect new hires to be familiar with tools that only a handful of shops use, and they can't expect community colleges to teach so narrowly either. I agree, employers need to meet potential hires halfway.

I do think there's something to the notion that we've stigmatized blue collar work. Tocqueville said something to the effect that in America, "All honest occupations are considered honorable." I'm not sure that's true anymore. By talking about "McJobs" a lot of the intelligentsia has said that some jobs just aren't worth doing.

Also, just because there are openings now, doesn't mean those jobs will be around for the long term. As you note, employment has dropped and manufacturing has been in a secular decline for quite some time. It could be perfectly rational for a young person to conclude that whatever the immediate term prospects, this is no place to be your career.

Lastly, my own experience in the high tech space suggests that employers are grossly exaggerating the skills shortage. Frankly, I believe some of them do it to justify bringing in lower paid immigrant workers to fill positions. But in other cases they've got too narrow a definition of who they want to hire. In Chicago, you never stop hearing about the "developer drought" yet I know several tech people locally without jobs. One of my friends is considering moving for just that reason. Someone with a basic background in technology is readily retrainable into a new tech space, even for example crossing from apps to infrastructure. But firms for whatever reason refuse to hire people who don't have a very specific narrow profile. Honestly, for all the talk about "talent", firms seem to hire less for general talent than specific skills than at any point in my lifetime. In 1992 when I joined, Accenture epitomized the idea of "hiring athletes" and they relying on training to teach them what they need to know. Consultancies have long understood this approach. Too few employers conceive of their recruitment in this way anymore, however.

Also, you can't underestimate the power of money. If you have no takers at the price on offer, there's always the option of paying more money.

Thank you, Mr. Renn, for pointing out that money is a powerful motivator. The complaints of employers are reminiscent of stories we get when the economy is in better shape- "massive shortages" for particular skill sets, which really means "massive shortages at the wages we're willing to pay".
I don't completely buy into the idea that blue collar work is completely stigmatized. Many young people are very interested in the DIY trend (see canning, urban farming, etc) and a great way to be seen as interesting in "hipster" cirles is to to do your own metal fabricating for some arts project. I'm sure that many of these people are quite willing to work extraordinarily hard at a blue collar job if they were assured it could provide a future for themselves and their prospective families.
There is an interesting parallel conversation in a series of recent Ezra Klein posts where he essentially claims that many Ivy League graduates with liberal arts degrees opt into finance/banking jobs because they have few practical skills (at least in their own minds) and no real idea what to do with their degrees. Goldman Sachs et al hire a very large number of these college graduates, train them up, and see which ones can take the stress and workload, and then keep them around for the long haul. Those who leave at least feel like they've gained some practical business skills and go into other fields with some nice credentials on their resumes. On the one hand, Goldman can do this because they have huge profit margins; on the other hand, Goldman realizes there's enormous untapped human talent in the Ivy League graduate pool that has little idea what to do next, so why not hire a bunch of them and see what happens? Manufacturers might do well to take note of the practice.

Ok, we've all heard the problem, so lets work on a solution. There needs to be a massive re-think on how we perceive many things in this country, "blue collar" being one of those. Media hype and political posturing are devaluing the issue all together. Everyone wants to point blame but there is plenty of blame to go around.

The solution needs to begin with a massive public relations campaign about the value of work. We need to rethink how we promote education and vocation. Hearing recently that some guidance counselors in our region tell students they have only two options, college or military after high school, I can only imagine what else is NOT being said.

I think Aaron Renn made some good points. I think a lot of these complaints about a "talent shortage" are lies or cluelessness. It is the same in software. A lot of companies say they want smart people, but then reject you if you do not meet their long, specific checklist. Everybody says they want a generalist, until they meet one. If you say you are looking for a permanent employee, don't act like you are looking for a short-term contractor.

This has been going on for years. A few years ago I read an article about this on the Wall Street Journal website. They quoted an engineer who was rejected for a position designing heating systems because he did not have experience designing them for hospitals. The quote that still sticks in my mind is "a heating duct is a heating duct".

You can have strict requirements, you can complain about not being able to find anyone, but if you do both, then maybe the problem is you.

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