Wanted: Long-term thinking
I am dumbfounded by the shortsighted thinking prevalent in today's business world in the form of extreme focus on quarterly performances. What can be expected 100 quarters from now, when the middle class is nearly gone and no one can afford iPads, Nike shoes, and new cars? A robotic arm can replace 20 employees, but the byproduct is 20 people who cannot buy the final product. Progressive production methods are important, but balance is needed to ensure that these efficiencies don't put companies out of business. We need to educate business leaders and the public that a long-term approach is the only tone that will retain U.S. status as a world power. This starts with commitment to education and a strong middle class. Rather than chastise unions, businesses should insist on a strong legislative government that ensures a level playing field with foreign competition. We will outsource ourselves right out of the game unless we start thinking long-term.
The following letters are in response to an editorial column about blue-collar work published in the November 2010 issue.
More vocational training needed
It's true that there is a glamorization of white-collar work and a downward glance at blue-collar labor in the U.S. today. This is a complicated problem not only in industry, but also in society. That said, while the automation of industrial processes may reduce the number of manual-labor jobs, it should also increase specialized support roles — and the need for individuals with classic vocational training in specialized applications. Sadly, it seems that fewer people are entering these vocational roles. If you talk to the maintenance crew of any plant, ask them about the average age of their staff. It seems that this age is only increasing; as experienced staff retires, few young maintenance workers are being hired.
This trend doesn't solely stem from industry. Recall when you were in high school: The majority of students in the U.S. are told to work hard to be accepted into a good college, to get a four-year degree and live successful lives. How many students do you recall wanting to go on to a vocational school to become plumbers, electricians, and contractors? Even so, I know many people with vocational careers who didn't go to college but have very lucrative jobs. It's sad that the phrase “higher education” only refers to collegiate endeavors, when there is much knowledge to be gained in other careers that literally grease the wheels of our society. These disciplines could provide numerous jobs for unemployed Americans.
Most blue-collar work is being exported. It is unfortunate that these types of jobs are so maligned: I work in a blue-collar job and have for more than 30 years. I make an excellent salary and have had a lucrative career. Yes, I have to work — and sometimes get dirty — but at the end of the day, I have positive proof that something got done. My work is more than just lines on a chart or words on a screen. Bravo for bringing this thought forward.
Unions not to blame
I agree that there is a conflict between supplying low-cost products and providing a working wage here. Until we are willing to pull the working wage down to that of India — get ready to burn cow dung for heat — and as long as the goal is to make products at the lowest cost, jobs will move to the lowest-cost areas. Whether this is good for the U.S. and Americans is another matter. In a letter from your November issue (page 8), blame is cast on unions by a Mr. Hunt. I disagree with that stance as well as the idea that we have no control over jobs going away. Unions often protect jobs in the U.S. or work to keep them at a living wage. CEOs and managers need incentives to keep jobs in the States; otherwise they will do all they can to enhance their income at the expense of what's good for the country. In my petty moments, I might propose that any off-shoring CEO should earn what his counterpart in India or China earns. That would stop the job loss in a hurry.
I also propose another change. Part of the cost gap for products (between U.S. and Chinese-made goods, for example) is caused by adherence to regulations on worker safety, work hours, and the environment, and laws against working slaves or prisoners. We should pass a law requiring that imported products be produced under the same conditions that U.S. workers are given. If China can produce a product that meets all the rules to which the U.S. must adhere, so be it. If they can't manufacture such goods, then impose a customs duty equivalent to their unfair advantage.