Pondering the Value of Work

I’ve been mulling these ideas for some time. I’ve also had Mike Rowe’s YouTube video in my Pocket queue for at least a few months. Today I finally got around to working through my backlog of to-watch items, and after hearing what Rowe had to say, I decided it was time to write. I’ll warn you that much of this is shot from the hip; spit and polish aren’t on the agenda here.

I am an electrician. I worked for more than 10 years in the trade, and while I maintain my master’s license, I’m happy to say I no longer work in that world, having moved into an IT-related business after working for several years to develop skills relevant in that market.

My thoughts will take some explaining, so bear with me. I took a great deal of pride in my work, and I still respect a good many of the men and women I worked around. Mike Rowe is different from many who riff on this theme (I’m looking at you, Marco) in that he’s chosen to expose himself to the world of skilled labor. And I don’t disagree with his assessment that America has a “dysfunctional relationship with work”. But Mike — and many others — miss a fundamental reason for the so-called “skills gap”, and it’s neither laziness nor disrespect. It’s economics.

I’ve never met a single tradesman — out of hundreds of turd-herders, sparkys and duct-beaters — who makes “60, 70, 80 thousand dollars a year”, as Rowe says is possible. To be fair, I am a non-union electrician and most of my work has been around non-union tradesmen. There is, at first glance, a significant difference in the hourly wage + benefit combination offered a union electrician. Look more closely at the long-term, though, and you’ll see the reality is less rosy. Long layoffs are the great equalizer.

Tradesmen spend months at a time out of work. So while a journeyman electrician might make $20/hr., his effective wage over the long haul is likely to be between 50% - 60% of that. For those of you who aren’t very good at math, that works out to ~$20k - $25k/yr, with insurance benefits that are laughable, no retirement or 401k. And all this for a job that is physically demanding, mentally challenging, and not a little dangerous.

It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that companies have a hard time hiring “skilled labor”. What about manufacturing jobs? Now, I’ve never worked in manufacturing, but let’s take off the rose-colored glasses, shall we? Unions, for better or worse, are losing traction in all job markets. Without Big Labor behind you, the wage/benefit equation tilts in favor of the employer. With Big Labor behind you, you’ve more or less signed yourself up to be first on the list for downsizing. Repetitive work in a challenging environment for not much in the way of long-term stability? That’s not very enticing, now, is it?

You say you can’t hire skilled laborers? Raise wages and benefits. Make those jobs more attractive to smart people. Throw aside the elitist presumption that people don’t do hard work because they don’t respect it. Supply and demand, people. Or as George H. W. Bush once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”