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Posted by on Feb 6, 2012 in Economy | 20 comments

Those skilled low skilled workers!

I have a great deal of respect for James Joyner and his does a good job of critiquing the really offensive book by Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

But in the comments section he goes too far:

As a matter of sheer economics, the gravy train in which low skill laborers could make fantastic livings in manufacturing was unsustainable. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction and huge swaths of the country are finding it hard to make a decent living. Blaming that on the 1960s counterculture isn’t very helpful.

My response:

Why? Those “Low Skill Workers” may not have had a college education but that doesn’t mean they weren’t skilled. As an engineer I appreciated the skills of those “low Skilled” people I worked with. And what created the economic miracle that was the US in the 50s, 60s and 70s. It wasn’t the wealthy it was those “low skilled workers” that had money to spend. The wealthy don’t create jobs it’s those “low skilled workers” with money to spend that create jobs.

James is still a believer in supply side economics.  He is also guilty of thinking that only the college educated are skilled.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

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Copyright 2012 The Moderate Voice
  • Jim Satterfield

    I just don’t understand how anyone can seriously still believe in supply side economics except as a religious belief system.

  • ShannonLeee

    we should be turning “low skilled workers” into “skilled labor”. No, not everyone can be a rocket scientist, but most people should be able to learn a trade. Believe me, there is still demand for trustworthy, responsible skilled laborers…and these higher level skilled labor positions cannot be filled by a truck load of Mexicans. They simply don’t have the education required to learn new complex things.

  • EEllis

    I would say that it isn’t that workers are incapable of doing skilled work but that more and more the available work is less skilled. With more atomization and efficiency demanded it is easier and simply takes less to do alot of the same jobs. You don’t need to be a machinist to slap metal in a water jet and hit the execute button. The pay reflects that.

  • ShannonLeee

    EE, I know employers that can’t find good skilled labor. I know those jobs are out there, but it does require that you learn…study…and in the end, do a good job. Some of those employers will keep socially dysfunctional staff on the job as long as they do their job right.

    I don’t know if I would consider most manufacturing jobs “skilled labor”. If a 14 year old Chinese girl can do you job, you aren’t skilled labor. BUT, if you received an average education in the US, you should be able to learn something more difficult.

    Computers can’t think like us…at least not yet. 🙂

    I think the idea that an American can earn a good wage working a low skilled job is basically dead. In the end…Americans have to protect American jobs … and they do that by…

    Buying American Made Goods.

    It is hard, but we can all do it.

  • merkin

    Actually we can take a page from the Chinese and the Indians. They are filling their education gaps by training people for one or two years after high school to do specific jobs rather than the general academic ‘how to learn’ course of a four year college.

  • EEllis

    EE, I know employers that can’t find good skilled labor. I know those jobs are out there, but it does require that you learn…study…and in the end, do a good job. Some of those employers will keep socially dysfunctional staff on the job as long as they do their job right.

    I don’t know if I would consider most manufacturing jobs “skilled labor”. If a 14 year old Chinese girl can do you job, you aren’t skilled labor. BUT, if you received an average education in the US, you should be able to learn something more difficult.

    If they are having trouble finding people then they are doing one of two things wrong. They are not paying what the position deserves or they are setting qualifications (degrees, experience, etc) that the job could be done without.

  • rudi

    Even automation(not atomization) requires advanced skills. A block of metal has not be set up, it can’t be thrown in and just push a “start” button. GM created a job bank because automation on the assembly line requires computer skills and post HS knowledge. Robots and PLC’s require setup and alot of maintenance…

  • xyzyx

    The number of jobs will go down with automation. Right now some are going nuts about “the return of industry to American.” Does anyone really believe there will be as many jobs in what industry does come back or start new, as there were before, much less that they would be hugely overpaid as was the case with Detroit auto workers for at least two decades or more?

    (leaving aside issues of product quality, now that Detroit has been mentioned)

    By the way, how long before things finally get corrected in…government? Not just with the post office, either.

  • xyzyx

    Regarding E. Ellis and “not paying enough or expecting too much or being unrealistic about” people who might work for employers.

    The answer to that (after jobs get moved to the likes of Alabama and people on the coasts don’t want to move there) isn’t to pay the people (at least on the coasts) more, of course, but to declare a “labor shortage” and seek higher immigration.

    It seems that way, sometimes, at least.

  • Rcoutme

    Look to the free trade agreements that do not mandate minimum wage requirements for imports. Any product that has a significant labor cost can be made cheaper by cheaper labor. Reading that, I almost wonder why I need to say it. Meanwhile, immigration is the great equalizer. The problem that Europe faces right now (think Greece, Portugal, etc.) is that they want a unified economy without automatic allowance for immigration.

    I happen to support tariffs. I want good, decent-paying jobs for all Americans. We can not have that if our companies have to compete with a work force that can (and does) live on a few dollars per day.

  • EEllis

    A block of metal has not be set up, it can’t be thrown in and just push a “start” button. GM created a job bank because automation on the assembly line requires computer skills and post HS knowledge. Robots and PLC’s require setup and alot of maintenance…

    actually it almost can. Compared to the years it took to become a quality machinist you can learn the basics of operating a water jet in an afternoon. Yes of course programing and maintaining that equipment is a skilled job but guess what, cranking out thousands of similar parts isn’t particularly skilled, dangerous, or even demanding so you get paid less while a much smaller few get paid more for programing and maint.

  • EEllis

    I happen to support tariffs. I want good, decent-paying jobs for all Americans. We can not have that if our companies have to compete with a work force that can (and does) live on a few dollars per day.

    Yes we can we just have to be smart. That is the real issue the Luddites who want things to stay the same. Well they wont so how about we start trying to compete rather than whining? We do have a better educated work force and lots of benefits to operating in the US. We just have to work with our strengths not other countries and adopting protective stances that never work isn’t a strength.

  • STinMN

    actually it almost can. Compared to the years it took to become a quality machinist you can learn the basics of operating a water jet in an afternoon. Yes of course programing and maintaining that equipment is a skilled job but guess what, cranking out thousands of similar parts isn’t particularly skilled, dangerous, or even demanding so you get paid less while a much smaller few get paid more for programing and maint.

    They’ve been trying this in our automated machining areas for years, and the one thing that those MBA-holding entry-level supervisors keep re-learning is that it doesn’t work that way. Unskilled or minimally skilled operators create more material scrap and cause more machine downs than skilled operators, and ultimately end up costing the company MUCH more in labor, material, and schedule. But each new supervisor we get always seems do the same thing over and over again.

    At work all these “cost savings” efforts results in things like us investing $3.5M on a production line to assembly a new product, resulting a production facility that takes 16 hours to assemble a product with 6 $10/hour “unskilled” laborers, yet one of our $20/hour entry level technicians with $250 of tools from Sears can assemble the same product in under 3 hours with higher quality than that $3.5M investment. $960 in unskilled labor is apparently less expensive than $60 in skilled labor.

  • zephyr

    Speaking as someone who has worked in a variety of factories and machine shops over the years I take issue with (and utterly reject) the phrase, “low-skilled”. It would only be used by people who don’t know what they are talking about – and who probably couldn’t cut it in those environments. Real life vs. idle opinions.

  • roro80

    An enthusiastic “right on” to both ST and zephyr.

  • EEllis

    At work all these “cost savings” efforts results in things like us investing $3.5M on a production line to assembly a new product, resulting a production facility that takes 16 hours to assemble a product with 6 $10/hour “unskilled” laborers, yet one of our $20/hour entry level technicians with $250 of tools from Sears can assemble the same product in under 3 hours with higher quality than that $3.5M investment. $960 in unskilled labor is apparently less expensive than $60 in skilled labor.

    Come on man. While you had a point you had to totally overshadow it with your exaggerations. If indeed the new line was so bad then the engineers who designed it are the real idiots. The higher paid workers have a place in high end quality goods but trying to pretend that automation doesn’t work is trying to turn back the clock. You can do but it doesn’t change anything.

    Speaking as someone who has worked in a variety of factories and machine shops over the years I take issue with (and utterly reject) the phrase, “low-skilled”. It would only be used by people who don’t know what they are talking about

    It’s not a cut at the workers it describes the jobs. Years ago I was a projectionist. It was a complex job that took along time to learn and was decent paying. The equipment became better and more advanced (I came along in the middle of that change) and the job just plain got easier. Didn’t make me less skilled but it did mean that the theaters could and did have kids take over the majority of the projection work anywhere there wasn’t a strong union. True I’m sure there were more errors and mistakes by the lower skilled workers but I’m also sure that the 1/3 salary they paid them more than made up for the few tickets they might of had to refund and as the years have gone by and equipment has again advanced there are even less issues all the time. There was still a market for full fledged projectionist setting up, doing maint, and repairs but there really isn’t a need for the level of skill and training there used to be. I could go on and on with several professions I was involved with but whats the point.

  • STinMN

    Come on man. While you had a point you had to totally overshadow it with your exaggerations. If indeed the new line was so bad then the engineers who designed it are the real idiots. The higher paid workers have a place in high end quality goods but trying to pretend that automation doesn’t work is trying to turn back the clock. You can do but it doesn’t change anything.

    You’re right, I did exaggerate. I mean who would really believe an entry level technician makes $20/hour? It’s actually $13.75/hr.

    (I did make a mistake with the labor cost/product. It should be $160 not $960. I multiplied the total hours (16) by the 6 production workers and then the average wage/hour ($10) when it should have been just the hours x average wage. Sorry about that, I guess these 14 hour days are catching up with me.)

    As far as the $3.5M production line, I didn’t said it was automated. It isn’t. It is designed for completely unskilled labor to assemble the product, so each time a part is inserted, a screw is fastened, or two pieces are mated together there are fixtures and shields that only allow that particular operation to occur, lets the operator know if they performed the task correctly, and if it was, allows them to release the product from the fixture and move to the next assembly step. The line achieves that goal – just about anyone can go to any of the assembly stations and perform the tasks with no instruction. The only people we have had problems with are the finance executives – they just can’t follow the video instruction, often jamming the powered (and torque controlled) wrenches into empty holes. Installing the bolt then using the wrench is a little too difficult for them to understand.

    And please don’t blame the “stupid engineers,” they designed and built exactly what our management asked them to build, for almost $1M less than the consulting firm quoted for the same line. Our management is thrilled with the assembly line, it does everything they want it to with the lowest cost labor they could possibly find. I (and many others) find it to be a colossal waste of time, money, and manpower, all so they can say they don’t need skilled labor.

  • EEllis

    I did make a mistake with the labor cost/product. It should be $160 not $960.

    Well 160 to 60 is a heck of a lot better than 960 to 60. I’m sure there are other cost also but I agree it doesn’t sound like at this time it’s the smartest move but then again I, and I doubt you, know all of the reasoning. Most people see it from their own viewpoint and don’t care or dismiss anything else.

    And please don’t blame the “stupid engineers,”

    You did notice where I said if the line was so bad then the engineers would be idiots. It obviously isn’t even as close to as bad as you claimed originally.

  • roro80

    “I’m sure there are other cost also but I agree it doesn’t sound like at this time it’s the smartest move but then again I, and I doubt you, know all of the reasoning.”

    I wouldn’t count on the muckity-mucks playing 10-dimensional chess about this sort of thing. Someone writes a ppt slide saying we can save $X by spending $Y that will accrue over the next 3 years, so they do that. Even if $X was lower than real numbers and $Y was higher than real numbers, and the project will take 2 years to complete, meaning you won’t make up your money for 7 years, at which time you won’t even be making the product anymore because it’s obsolete and really was probably already obsolete at the time you started thinking about automating the line because if it weren’t you’d still be making decent margins on it and wouldn’t be fretting about the labor costs. Of course it doesn’t matter anyway because the CEO and 4 of the 5 VPs that made the decision to automate or move the line overseas have gotten new jobs by putting exactly this sort of brilliant $X cost savings success on their resumes and fail to mention that $X is anticipated and not realized cost savings. It all truly is just that stupid, and it happens over, and over, and over again.

    I know these things, being one of the stupid engineers who gets flown all over the world to carry out the plans. Hell, keeps me in a job I guess.

  • EEllis

    I know these things, being one of the stupid engineers who gets flown all over the world to carry out the plans. Hell, keeps me in a job I guess.

    Then you also know that even if the first, heck maybe even the second, generation of labor/skill saving devices may not be any improvement at all, but eventually they do start showing their effectiveness and regardless on if it is smart are not the skill level and thus pay end up going down. People can fight it and say that it doesn’t need to be that way or that it shouldn’t be that way but the truth is that it is that way. Instead of being stuck in the past we need to be looking forward to emerging industries and jobs.

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