After spending my twenties in education and nonprofit organizations I’m glad to be in manufacturing. I like being able to get physical products out the door for a contract price without any doubts about the value of what I’m doing.

My favorite thing about manufacturing is that a handful of salesmen and engineers with a product can create hundreds of jobs.

The company for which I work needs labor, skilled and unskilled: from machinists and painters to young kids willing to learn how to work with fiberglass composites. We hire carpenters and bodyshop greasemonkeys and teach them to make airplane parts. It is steady work with lots of overtime. A determined 18 year old can work 70 hours a week, almost every week. With time-and-a-half and double-time a young kid can achieve financial independence; with brains and patience he can get promoted and make a career.

On paper the United States has 6% unemployment but the workforce is at its smallest in decades, meaning real unemployment is probably around 10-11%. Record numbers are working only part time, are on welfare, or are being supported by family. You would think people would be breaking down the doors demanding jobs.

But we can’t find workers.

Every department lead complains about the low number and poor quality of applicants: kids with no skills we can handle, it is kids who can’t even manage to show up to work five days a week, let alone six or seven who are all too common. They skip work until the supervisor has to tell them they aren’t wanted anymore.

We’ve begun offering more money to find workers with more skills, which has improved the labor pool from a bone dry wadi to a slightly damp one. As much as finance is fighting the idea, we will eventually have no choice but to offer substantial wage increases to lure better workers. I don’t think that is a bad thing, but it is strange that an already good deal isn’t getting more response in this economy.

I think the problem with this bizarre labor shortage in the midst of widespread unemployment is a bias against manufacturing and skilled manual labor. Too many high-schools act as if every child needs to go to college when in fact it can be a terrible waste of time and money. Teachers, obviously, will be biased against pushing students towards skilled labor. Too many middle class families also push their kids towards college, because their idea of the value of a college education is about thirty years behind the times. Too many poor families, except for recent immigrants, tend to not associate hard work with money, having grown up on the dole.

Is there a solution? I doubt the nature of our welfare state, with its tendency to perpetuate poverty, is going to change any time soon. I do however hope that people start seeing higher education for the overpriced scam it has become the last few years, and the educational choices people make start to reflect market realities.






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