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Did Lack of Respect Lead to a Growing Labor Shortage?

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Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

THIS PIECE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES ON MAY 2, 1999.     

Did Lack of Respect Lead to a Growing Labor Shortage?

By David Kusnet

In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, because of a shortage of skilled construction workers, families are waiting six months or more to move into their new homes. In Massachusetts, the state government is offering a $20,000 signing bonus for new teachers. In Detroit, the auto companies are worrying what will happen when the current corps of tool-and-diemakers — most of them over 50 — retire in just a few years. And, in California, even after convincing Congress to let them import more foreign computer professionals, high-tech companies say they still can’t find enough skilled employees.

These seemingly unrelated headlines tell the story of a fast-emerging but still largely unexamined problem: In important occupations – from skilled blue-collar jobs to poorly paid professional positions – employers seem unable to recruit and retain good workers. To the extent that opinion leaders and policymakers have addressed this problem at all, they’ve offered two comforting but inadequate explanations.

First, they say, a labor shortage is a good problem to have — a sign the economy is growing so fast it’s swallowing up the supply of willing workers. Second, they add, if there’s any problem, it’s a “skills shortage” — too few well-trained people to fill too many demanding jobs.

But what if other explanations are at work as well? What if our economy is unprepared to offer rewarding and stable careers to skilled workers without prestigious credentials? And what if our culture also refuses to respect the contributions of workers in unglamorous jobs — from computer “geeks” to “construction” hardhats — encouraging ambitious people to overlook these occupations and pinch-penny employers to under-value them?

A closer look at conditions in four of these jobs — construction, skilled factory work, classroom teaching, and information technology — suggests that Americans downgrade the very jobs where skilled workers are in short supply.

In construction, for instance, recent surveys by business groups, from the Business Roundtable to the National Association of Home Builders, find developers fretting about the lack of skilled craft workers, from carpenters and electricians to pipefitters and welders. But it wasn’t long ago that some of the same business groups, together with the Associated Builders and Contractors, were working overtime to drive down wages and drive out unions in their industry.

In large measure, they succeeded. In spite of a recent uptick, construction workers wages, adjusted for inflation, are well below their high-point in the late 1960s and early 70s. And union membership has declined as well, from 40% of the total workforce during the 1970s to scarcely 20% today.

But lower wages mean fewer young workers are attracted to construction. And the drop in union membership also means a decline in workers’ skills, since fewer recent hires have participated in the apprenticeship programs jointly operated by unions and contractors.

To be sure, the culture takes its toll, too. Young people who don’t go to college are seen as “failures,” and fewer native-born Americans want to work with their hands, outdoors — at any wage.

Something similar is happening with skilled factory work. In the auto industry, skilled workers are mostly more than 50 years old. They’re nearing retirement in an industry where workers qualify for pensions after 30 years on the job. And relatively few young people are taking their place.

As for skilled machinists, they’re average age is also over 50, and many are approaching retirement as well. And only 15,000 young people become machinists each year, leaving 30,000 jobs unfilled.

Just as the construction industry is paying the price for breaking its unions, such industries as auto and aerospace are footing the bill for downsizing their workforces. With the factory closings and massive layoffs of the early 1980’s, many workers in skilled trades such as welders, electricians, machinists, and tool-and-diemakers, lost their jobs, and many companies disbanded their apprenticeship programs. This broke the longstanding link between generations of skilled factory workers. And, even today, the memory of what happened to fathers, uncles, and older brothers discourages younger folks from following them.

At first glance, classrooms seem worlds apart from construction sites and factory floors, but, with teachers, too, America gets what it pays for. As today’s teachers retire, the public schools will need to hire two million new teachers over the next decade. Already, school systems say they can’t find enough good ones. Across the nation, some 36% of public school teachers had neither a major nor a minor in the subject they teach. About 6.5% of the new teachers hired each year come with emergency credentials. And, even in highbrow Massachusetts, nearly 60% of prospective teachers failed a competency test — thus, the state’s $20,000 bounty for capable new teachers.

In the past, school systems could find high-quality teachers because well-educated women couldn’t find better jobs. Now, with discrimination declining, teacher salaries are still lagging — about $25,000 for newcomers in most states. That’s much lower than most other professions, and, unlike almost any other professional, teachers don’t enjoy such amenities as cubicles, computers, or even telephones of their own. These problems point to why the United States prepares nearly twice as many new teachers each year as actually enter teaching, and why some 30% of new teachers leave after five years on the job.

But what, then, of the new economy’s supposed stars – information technology workers? To hear the high-tech industry tell it, they have about 350,000 job openings for skilled workers, particularly computer programmers and engineers and systems analysts. That was why, last year, Congress passed, and the Clinton Administration approved, increasing special visas for foreign information technology workers from 65,000 to 115,000 a year for 1999 and 2000.

But, on closer examination, it seems the industry wants cheap and disposable workers at least as much as skilled ones. Perhaps because employers have been able to hire so many well-trained, low-paid, and hard-working immigrants, pay scales have generally risen at no higher rate than for the workforce at large. With long hours and high stress, computer programming in particular is a young person’s job: Fewer than 20% remain in the industry after 20 years. And few leading companies offer training for veteran programmers to help them upgrade and update their skills.

All this suggests that, whether the nation is looking for better teachers or tool-and-diemakers, plumbers or programmers, we’d better ask ourselves how these occupations must appear to young people choosing their life’s work. Can we claim that, if they prepare for these careers, they can look forward to secure jobs with rising wages and at least a little respect from their family, friends, and neighbors? Or is our economy too enthralled with “flexibility” and our popular culture too enamored with glitz and glamour for even a booming America to promise the skilled workers it needs the re
wards they deserve?

[ POSTED TO VIEWPOINTS ON JUNE 6 ]

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of “Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties.”

See more work by David Kusnet