White Men Can’t Mow Lawns

How often have we heard it said by conservative pundits and talk radio personalities that unemployed Americans are inclined to refuse menial work, apparently content to accept government handouts? The list of supposed “shall nots” are numerous: Americans won’t bus tables, clean hotel rooms, harvest crops and, in general, bust our chops. On the flip side, how many times have liberals argued that undocumented labor has little to no adverse impact on American job prospects?

In one key respect, the two sides seemingly agree: American-born workers won’t take “those jobs” anyhow, whereas the undocumented workforce contributes to cheaper goods and services — such are the hands that infuse America with entrepreneurial spirit, after all.

Never mind the reality: The bulk of today’s job growth takes place in the service sector — precisely where the legal and undocumented alike mingle.

But what does one make of it when “reality” is beholden to stereotypes — perceptions so routine, we scarcely question them?

A phenomena of “enforced roles” may help explain why socioeconomic groups become occupationally stratified.

“Jim’s” story provides a window into things present — and trends to come. It began when a middle-aged man and his parents began sharing a roof. The Great Recession had not been kind, having hit the state of California particularly hard. For Jim, the eldest son of retired healthcare professionals, the economic downturn entailed prolonged underemployment — in spite of experience in a supposedly in-demand field. Having hit his late 40s with a résumé that reads like a who’s-who of defunct employers, things weren’t looking up. For Jim’s parents, likewise, failure to pay off their primary residence before retirement forced a difficult choice: upend their son, or live under the same roof.

Like any earnest job-seeker, Jim sought to do “whatever it takes” to get by while searching for full-time work. Imagine, then, his surprise when his parents turned down his offer to do yard work — lawn and garden care for the very home he occupied as his parents’ renter for nearly 20 years.

Why deny one’s own son a mundane job, an offer that if accepted would have netted a savings for a couple who themselves depend upon a fixed income — an offer that, if little more, would have helped a demoralized Jim feel useful? Their objection, Jim says, centered around the difficulty of finding a “good gardener”. And who might a good gardener be?

Stereotypically, the illegal variety.

Too add insult to injury, Jim’s parents spend upwards of 10 hours per day watching FOX News. If anyone were to be opposed to undocumented labor, it would be them — right?

Wrong.

To add yet another layer of irony, it wasn’t the first time Jim had lost out on work he was more than willing to take. When a neighbor passed away before the recession, Jim kept up the vacant home’s yard while the trustees weighed their options. Upon noting Jim’s neighborly actions, the inheritors of the property began to pay him a small sum — fortuitously for by this time Jim’s employer had succumbed to the recession. The owners compensated Jim, that is until they inexplicably apologized for “taking advantage” of him, opting instead for — you guessed it — a gardening service run by those whom society has apparently come to regard as legitimate partakers of such labor.

Jim’s experience is hardly isolated. During the Great Recession, employment prospects for the very rich and the very poor were not as heavily hit as those of the middle class. Under-the-table workers in the underground economy, for instance, suffered less unemployment than blacks and teens. The Great Recession, more accurately portrayed, consisted of the bottom dropping out of the middle class. Some four years into this so-called recovery, three-quarters of Americans live paycheck to paycheck80 percent of us will at some point in our working lives grapple with “economic insecurity”, and most have endured wage loss in the face of increased costs of living.

Jim’s reality is a poor fit for conservative critics’ allegations of pervasive, American lassitude and laziness, nor does it jive with the liberal romanticism our nation of immigrants reserves for the newly arrived. More telling, it begs the question: Is there a double standard in society — a racist typecasting of sorts — that keeps ethnic minorities behind a barrier of subordinate or low-wage occupations and majority “whites” entrenched in roles of a different but no less rigid type?

Maybe it’s time to ask.

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* The title for this blog entry is a take off the film “White Men Can’t Jump”.

Joe the Plumber: The Real Untouchable

Curt Eysink is an unpopular man.

Less than three months after assuming his post as executive director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, he told a panel charged with overhauling the state’s higher education system: “We’re producing a workforce that we cannot employ in Louisiana.”

The problem? Too many four-year college grads and not enough low-skill and vocational trade workers.

Where is the job growth?

The service industry.

“[O]ccupational forecasts that show the state will produce 10,312 more four-year graduates than there are jobs to fill between 2008 and 2016, while at the same time there are 3,892 more jobs available requiring associates’ or technical degrees than there are people to fill them, ” reports Jan Moller of the Times Picayune.

Fairly or not, such news equates in Americans’ minds with sub par wages. And low-wage prospects make Americans see red.

“If I saw the strongest growth area was ushers, lobby attendants and ticket-takers, I’d leave Louisiana too,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Outside of Louisiana this story has not gained much traction. But it is far from a Louisiana fluke.

“According to the Forgotten MiddleSkill Jobs reports by The Workforce Alliance, middle-skill occupations, which require more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree, make up roughly half of all employment in the nation, compared with only 1/3 of high-skill occupations that require at least a four-year education,” writes Ann Pace in “The Forgotten Middle Worker“, published in September.

Louisiana was not among the states studied but it very well could have been: The Workforce Alliance analysis of middle-skill job demands include Washington, Oregon, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Rhode Island — all of which have proven consistent with the national outlook, survey reports show.

Welcome to the future, America.

The mainstream media is either entirely oblivious to real job trends, or chooses to keep Americans in the dark because a future filled with ticket-takers, cashiers, healthcare aides, auto mechanics and electricians isn’t the kind of news we want to hear. To the contrary, syndicated New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in October, argued that “our schools are failing” to promote American competitiveness, in part, because we allegedly have a shortage of science, engineering, mathematics and other such high-tech grads. The “new untouchables“, by Friedman’s definition, are those who maintain an innovative and stable career in an increasingly cutthroat economy.

Message: Make schools more competitive. This will cure America’s globalized bellyache.

Improving student literacy, of course, is never a waste of time. What Friedman and others fail to take under consideration, however, is that few Americans work in the field they studied in college. That includes so-called STEM grads (science, technology, engineering and math majors).

But wait, it gets better!

Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president, takes the argument to a whole new level of absurdity in an October opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in which she pleas for immigration reform to allow more foreign-born STEM grads to stay in the U.S. for permanent work as “jobs creators” and “Nobel winners”.

Who hires those foreign grads on H-1B visas? Microsoft, Google and other heavy hitters. This is the last thing most Americans call job creation. Hockfield’s suggestion reeks, instead, of domestic job displacement. Why? Because fewer U.S. citizens are likely to pursue challenging Ph.D.-level curriculum when their post-graduation economic stability is undercut by inexpensive foreign talent (insourcing/outsourcing). American-born students aren’t stupid, they’re pragmatic: What incentive is there to incur massive student loan debts if at best “employment insecurity” is the reward for the effort? And finally, to add insult to injury, independent studies from The Urban Institute, RAND Corp.Duke and Rutgers University, among others, say the so-called demand for high-tech and high-skill foreign workers doesn’t even exist — and that was true before the Great Recession cut loose thousands of qualified workers, dumping them back into the open market:

Is Anybody Safe?

Here’s how Eysink gets it right and the corporate and academic sources often quoted on this subject slant it wrong: Highly skilled foreign students aren’t coming to American universities to pursue jobs as lobby attendants or cashiers on the one hand, or the better paying “skilled trades”, such as auto mechanics, electricians and machinists, on the other. They are pursuing cream-of-the-crop professional skills whereas non-manufacturing jobs that require hands-on skills are relatively unscathed. After all, if your pipes burst you aren’t calling a plumber in China; your hairdresser will not be replaced anytime soon with a computerized robot; and your auto body repairperson is unlikely to be supplanted by a foreign grad student.

Nobody is arguing that these are ideal aspirations for Americans — only that middle-skill jobs are relatively safe from the insource/outsource phenomena. But when lettuce pickers and high-tech whiz kids are both here on work visas — if legally at all — watch out.

That should scare us.

When Eysink says that vocational and low-skill jobs are where much of the growth projections are, he’s only saying what everyone working on behalf of community and state employment agencies already knows.

What is telling is that Eysink’s neck has been slashed for sticking it out too far.

Eysink’s blunt outlook flies in the face of the education-as-a-panacea argument that has been the politically correct solution to all that ails the U.S. economy for at least 30 years now. Might tax incentives drive U.S. corporations to seek greener pastures offshore? Naw. Might looser environmental and human rights standards make foreign labor attractive? Naw. Might this be a predictable outgrowth of border-free trade? Naw. Let’s just dismiss all those larger-than-life realities and jump on the little guy at a state agency for saying what we already knew but are too afraid to admit.

The School of Hard Knocks

Following the conventional go-back-to-school advice, unemployed Americans are enrolling in schools of all stripe. Those educational pursuits often involve taking out student loans. If obtaining anything short of high-demand professional or trade skills isn’t going to cut it in this Brave New Economy — and the national jobless rates hover above 10 percent as many economists project — it suggests that many freshly minted grads and their return-to-school adult counterparts will not secure stable employment by which to repay educational debts.

The next consumer debt “bubble” to burst the American economy before the effects of the Great Recession are entirely behind us may well be a student lending bubble. Louisiana state Governor Bobby Jindal isn’t the only one reading the writing on the wall. Other states are following suit, attempting to prevent a tsunami of student loan defaults at a time when more prospective students are clamoring for a university education and the academic loans to fund them.

What makes misguided career advisement particularly unforgivable, in the end, is that we Americans are only doing what we’ve been told to do by media, educators and the President himself: Earn new or improved academic credentials in hopes of securing a better future even if it means a prohibitive amount of debt.

Higher education is never a waste in the aim of creating an informed, well-rounded citizen. Economic betterment is also a useful reason to invest in education — assuming one’s skills aren’t so easily ravaged by globalization. As for the rest of the American public?

A rude awakening. And another swipe at an already ailing economy to boot.

Ah, but thankfully there is a silver lining: All hope is not lost for children who fail to become the academic superstars this Brave New Economy demands. Friedman and his pontificating friends may not appreciate it now, but America’s new untouchable may be Joe the Plumber.

Judging from the state of America’s aged and crumbling infrastructure, we’re going to need more Joes than we know.

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Resources

State Labor Department Says LA Has Too Many 4-Year College Grads/AP

The Workforce Alliance

Skills2Compete

America’s High-Tech Sweatshops | BusinessWeek

The H-1B Visa Lull Is Only Temporary | BusinessWeek

Is This Why I Went to College? | BusinessWeek

Congress’ H-1B Program Displaces Daughter of Programmers Guild President Out of Job Market

There is No High-Tech Shortage | The Social Contract

The Science Education Myth | BusinessWeek

The Myth of the Math and Science Shortage | Mises Institute

Another Scientist Shortage? | Science Careers

Nine Myths About Public Schools | Gerald Bracey of the Huffington Post

A Look Back: The Near-Myth of Our Failing Schools | The Atlantic