This Is What We're Up Against

Two articles have caught my eye in recent days that point out the weird disconnect between the crummy employment numbers and the fact that some manufacturers are going begging for employees. Both are from the New York Times. The first puts a "human face," as we used to call it in journalism class, on the vexing problem of trying to hire qualified people for manufacturing jobs. One of the painful ironies of this recession is that there are jobs out there; they're just not the jobs the unemployed (or many of them) have the skills to do.

The second is another "human face" story, this one about the struggles of recent college graduates to find jobs.

The story focuses on one graduate of the class of 2008, Scott Nicholson. The thing that struck me was this bit from near the end: "A job in manufacturing, in Scott’s eyes, would be a defeat. 'If you talk to 20 people,” Scott said, 'you’ll find only one in manufacturing and everyone else in finance or something else.'"

We can make a lot of snap judgments about young Mr. Nicholson and what he coulda, shoulda done, but for me the question is where did he get that notion that a manufacturing job would be a defeat. Who taught him that?

The fact is, he's not alone. There are a couple of generations of folks out there who never even considered taking a manufacturing job. Why? Because we, their parents, wanted something "better" for them? Because we were all transfixed by the shiney new information technologies where all our kids were going to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? Because we let the "experts" in economics and politics convince us that shipping manufacturing jobs overseas in the cause of "globalization" was going to be really, really good for all of us? Because those of us who knew better never seriously addressed the popular notion that manufacturing was dirty, dark and dangerous and something better left to people who couldn't get better jobs until that idea became so ingrained in the public psyche that the Scott Nicholsons of this world think bartending or temp work are better options than manufacturing?

All of the above and then some, I suppose.

Getting the American manufacturing sector back on track is going to be a complex, difficult business. There are lots of forces -- economic, structural, geopolitical -- that will have to be mastered.  But if we're ever going to get it done, one of the first things we're going to have to do is get people like Scott Nicholson to realize that taking a good manufacturing job is not a defeat.