Magazine | August 12, 2019, Issue

Worker Skills to Pay the Bills

(Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)
Conference rooms and spreadsheets do not a good job make

There are two big problems in the blue-collar job market: One is that there are a lot of people without jobs, and the other is that there are a lot of jobs without people.

A longtime construction professional tells a story about a colleague. Call him “Daniel.” As a young man from a family without a lot of money, Daniel was invited to spend the weekend with a friend, whose family turned out to own a really beautiful boat. He was impressed and asked his friend the most natural question in the world to a young man in his position: What does your father do for a living, that you have such a wonderful boat? The answer, which came without a hint of self-consciousness, was: construction. His friend was from a family of builders, and the people around him who were successful — who had money and respect — were mostly in construction and the building trades. Some of them were big-time contractors, some of them had little drywall operations and the like. That made an impression, and Daniel grew up to work as a manager for a major U.S. commercial-construction firm, overseeing jobs with budgets running more than $100 million.

It’s a good life. But what parent says: I want my kid to grow up to be a construction worker? Or a mason? Or a master plumber? Daniel was lucky to live in a community in which the kind of work he would go on to do was not only known to pay well but also came with a measure of social status. There was for him no question of stigma attached to that kind of work — which is, tragically, not the universal condition in these United States, in which we think that “good job” is a synonym for “plays with spreadsheets” and “goes to a lot of meetings in air-conditioned conference rooms.” In truth, those jobs are the ones that are the most vulnerable in an age of globalization: You can outsource your data analysis to very smart guys in India who will work for a discount. (A smaller discount than once was the case, but a discount nonetheless.) If you are building a $130 million retail-and-apartment complex and you want to make sure the windows are being put in right and the roof doesn’t leak, you need eyes and hands — and brains — on site. It is no accident that, in spite of overall productivity growth, income gains outside of Wall Street and Silicon Valley have been strongly concentrated in location-dependent jobs in industries such as health care, government, and construction. 

Keep Craft Alive, a project sponsored by Fine Homebuilding magazine and partners in the construction industry, is organized around one proposition, that “a skilled labor shortage is threatening the American economy,” as the group’s mission statement puts it. And in the construction business, that scarcity is everywhere to be seen. On one high-end construction project currently under way in New York City, master brick masons had to be imported from western Pennsylvania. If you just need some guys to trowel mortar onto bricks and hope that things end up more or less straight and even, then there are lots of crews that can do that for you. But for the more discerning customers — high-end homebuilders and those working on important public buildings — a really first-rate brick man can be hard to find. Keep Craft Alive puts on career fairs at places like Williamson College of the Trades in Philadelphia and Wright Technical High School in Stamford, Conn., demonstrating to students that there are cool and dignified jobs to be had working with their hands — and then following up with scholarships to help them get the education and training they need to pursue those jobs.

That is critical work, because many people do not discover that they are well suited to those jobs until later in life, often when they’ve been working for a few years in lower-skilled construction work. Being in your middle to late twenties may sound like the extended edge of childhood down at the Harvard Club, but many people have real responsibilities by those years — marriage, children, financial obligations — that make it difficult or impossible to take a few years off to pursue additional education, or even to stack professional development on top of existing work and financial requirements. We want people discovering these options when they are 15 years old, not when they are 25 years old. Many construction-management jobs now require a four-year degree in the field, but even those who are college-bound would benefit from real-world experience preceding and complementary to their academic education. 

The problem is not really one of resources. SkillsUSA, a Keep Craft Alive ally that organizes technical-education competitions around the country, has put tens of millions of dollars into its efforts. California alone makes almost $1 billion a year available for vocational education, and both federal and state governments have been looking to expand career-education opportunities since the 1990s. The problem isn’t money. 

Part of the problem is the stigma referenced above. Vocational education is widely viewed as simply inferior to college-preparatory education, and efforts to make such opportunities available to students as an alternative to college-oriented classes inevitably are met with cries of “Tracking!” This is a tragedy. While skills-oriented vocational education is valuable to college-bound and non-college-bound students alike — liberal-arts education is valuable in and of itself, but you might want to have a job plan in addition to the B.A. in 19th-century French poetry — these programs are lifelines in particular to students who are not academically inclined, who are not interested in a university education or well positioned to benefit from one, and whose talents and energy are better directed at something that they actually value and that in turn provides income and dignity (which are not entirely unrelated).

Another part of the problem is that the K–12 schools are not very good at this kind of thing. A study published in May by Excellence in Education found a radical mismatch between the kinds of career-oriented education students were receiving and what employers were looking for. For example, 28 percent of the students reviewed had received “general career readiness” education — things such as personal financial literacy — which was identified as in-demand by . . . 0.00 percent of employers. Only 1 percent of students were educated toward the pursuit of a professional license (21 percent of employers demand that), and the majority of those licenses were for relatively low-wage occupations rather than more lucrative ones such as commercial driving. Some 43 percent received some sort of certification, although only 16 percent of employers identified those credentials as in-demand. About a quarter of students received some software training, which most employers were interested in. The report adds: “There are undersupplied certifications that command good starting salaries. For example, Automotive Service Excellence Certifications ($44,000), CompTIA A+ ($43,000) and AWS Certified Welder ($43,000) are in high demand in all 24 states with data. These certifications can open doors to entry-level careers as automotive technicians, help desk operators and welders and, in general, allow for career mobility.”

A third problem is that many of the professional programs (you know, the ones you see advertised on subway signs) are somewhere between ineffective and outright scams, charging students a lot of money (don’t worry — the government will lend it to you!) and underdelivering when it comes to real, useful education. 

If the schools cannot be counted on to do a better job of directing apt students into high-skill blue-collar jobs (and they probably can’t), then it is up to the industries themselves — the trade associations, the unions, and individual employers — to make that happen through formal programs, continuing education, and, most important, apprenticeships. If there is a policy reform that could come into play here, it is to liberalize K–12 education practices to enable the shift away from school and toward employer as the provider of meaningful vocational education. School boards don’t know what skills are in demand; employers do. 

But the most important reform would be a reform of our hearts and minds — a reform of the culture that turns its nose up at people who sweat for their living. Our attitude toward manual work is tied up with our attitudes toward other things, too, including our attitudes toward those who marry and have children earlier in life. Are a couple of married 20-year-olds with a child or two and no college education a social liability or a social asset? Some of the answer, though by no means all of it, depends on work. And there are young people — young men, especially — who want to work, who have energy and drive and ambition, but who have little or no interest in a four-year liberal-arts or professional education. They have better options than they may know. And we can do a better job helping them connect with those options and understand their real value. 

This article appears as “Get the Skills To Pay the Bills” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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