The New York Times Magazine has an excellent short piece today by Adam Davidson on the "skills gap" bemoaned by Romney and his business supporters during the campaign. As you know, the narrative goes, there are companies with job opportunities for the taking but who can't find enough skilled workers to fill them. Thus, it follows, is part of the reason the economy is in the crapper.
Usually, it's advanced as an argument for improving education and training, and in that context there's really nothing wrong with it. We're all for that, progressive or conservative.
But the article reveals that, for those who promote the skills gap, there's actually one other skill—or rather the lack of it—that's of far greater importance to them. And thus the whole "skills gap" appears in a vastly different light.
Davidson starts by attending a class at a local community college where aspiring machinists are training in how to operate modern factory machinery. They can't just be machinists, we learn, they have to be able to program the computer that controls the machine as well. So, that's not just one skill but two.
Then he introduces us to someone who actually runs a small manufacturing company:
Eric Isbister, the C.E.O. of GenMet, a metal-fabricating manufacturer outside Milwaukee, told me that he would hire as many skilled workers as show up at his door. Last year, he received 1,051 applications and found only 25 people who were qualified. He hired all of them, but soon had to fire 15.And why is that, we ask?
Part of Isbister’s pickiness, he says, comes from an avoidance of workers with experience in a “union-type job.” Isbister, after all, doesn’t abide by strict work rules and $30-an-hour salaries. At GenMet, the starting pay is $10 an hour. Those with an associate degree can make $15, which can rise to $18 an hour after several years of good performance.So, part of the way Mr. Isbister digs out from under the pile of résumés that cram his inbox, both real and virtual, when he runs a help-wanted ad is to filter out anyone who might want to stand up for their own interests and organize their coworkers. It doesn't take much experience with industry to realize that he's probably also filtering out a good deal of the kind of experienced employees he's looking for.
Frankly, I'm surprised that he found that many. But I'm not surprised that he had to fire quite a few (Although if you have to fire more than half of your hard-sought, yet docile enough not to organize, new employees, I'd venture to guess that the problem isn't all theirs).
I haven't got the time right now to look up Mr. Isbister's campaign-contribution history, but I bet I know where all that money he's saving on quality help is going. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he's been a generous supporter of not only Romney but Scott Walker as well.
And it's not like anyone who wants a good-paying job at GenMet doesn't have any other alternatives in the area, either:
From what I understand, a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.While Davidson doesn't go any further into how Isbister is shooting himself in the foot to remain union-free (I think he's too subtle a writer to have to lampshade it and knows it can speak for itself, and in any event the commenters picked up on this), the sound of the chickens coming home to roost is rather evident later on:
Isbister is seeing the other side of this decision making. He was deeply frustrated when his company participated in a recent high-school career fair. Any time a student expressed interest in manufacturing, he said, “the parents came over and asked: ‘Are you going to outsource? Move the jobs to China?’ ” While Isbister says he thinks that his industry suffers from a reputation problem, he also admitted that his answer to a nervous parent’s question is not reassuring. The industry is inevitably going to move some of these jobs to China, or it’s going to replace them with machines. If it doesn’t, it can’t compete on a global level.Davidson's larger point is how this attitude on manufacturers' part is, given the increasing age of many skilled workers in manufacturing, eventually going to create an actual skills gap, with very real implications for the economy.
So, next time you hear someone blame the problems of our manufacturing sector on greedy, complacent unions, just tell them this story.
Mon Nov 26, 2012 at 6:11 AM PT: Thanks for the Community Spotlight and the rec list!