Back in my formative years in a factory town (Flint, MI), I knew a lot of guys who we going to go to school until they were old enough to get a job at the plant and make that their life’s calling. Personally, I could beat a retreat fast enough out of town. I was from this side of the tracks; they were from the other side of the tracks.
I got to thinking about this over the Labor Day weekend – how we somehow spent a lot of time and effort to picture “the plant,” manufacturing, as the other side of the tracks, coloring it as repetitive, demeaning, low-class, and undesirable. That was a mistake.
Since that time, of course, manufacturing in the US has taken a beating and perhaps – what with the negative opinion of manufacturing as a life calling – there were many, many Americans who thought the movement of those “low-class” jobs to Mexico and China and all points overseas was just fine. After all, since manufacturing jobs required little or no formal education, and little training, they just didn’t fit the new American image of the highly educated country compared to the rest of the world. We would do the thinking; they could do the back-breaking work.
Of course, what got lost in the shuffle of all of this are the many benefits of manufacturing – things like wealth creation, a strong middle class, the growth inherent in actually making things (as opposed to simply consuming them). It strikes me on this Labor Day that we let an extremely successful and important sector of our economy – and our economic history – just fade away because the image we created for it didn’t match the image we were going for. We bad-repped it out of existence.
This “low-class” image of manufacturing jobs persists in our society, particularly among young people, in spite of the fact that today’s manufacturers require a skilled and highly educated workforce. “Manufacturing” says “Blue Collar” and it seems as though most Americans would rather wear a business suit to work for lower pay than be thought of as “Blue Collar.” When we hear “labor,” it suggests “union” and now the whole thing has taken on the pejorative. Manufacturing jobs consistently rank low on the prestige scale of working in the United States, which is a shame.
One of the negative fallouts from this is that when you ask manufacturers about their biggest challenges, finding and retaining qualified employees consistently ranks the highest. What this suggests is that there are many highly-paid, good jobs going lacking because people have trouble the “which side of the tracks” perception. This is true in traditional manufacturing – the old-line factories – and also in high-tech manufacturing turning out some of the most cutting-edge products of our time.
It seems odd to me that our politicians and civic leaders talk almost incessantly about American Jobs as the remedy to the Great Recession, and yet all the while there is a sort of tacit undercurrent of commentary that “Blue Collar” is second-class and, therefore, somehow un-American.
We can’t afford to let this perception continue. Aren’t there platforms for boarding on both sides of the tracks these days?