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

American Competitiveness: The New Untouchables or The New Half Truth?

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Henry David Thoreau

In “The New Untouchables “, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that in this downwardly mobile economy there is no room for average. Extraordinary is what it takes to survive and thrive in the modern workplace.

I get that.

Yet for all my appreciation for education — I hold two degrees so I do, in fact, lean in favor of Friedman’s premise that education is key to American competitiveness — his education-as-a-panacea argument oversteps its reach.

Most strikingly, Friedman’s description of a successful “untouchable” American worker isn’t a portrait of educational endowment at all. Friedman’s favorite descriptors, instead, refer to personality attributes: entrepreneur (risk taker), creative (visionary), analytical (critical thinker), and persuasive (charismatic). The obvious problem with Friedman’s pin-the-tail-on-the-wrong-donkey premise is that temperament is inborn — teachers, let alone parents, cannot instill personality characteristics that are not there to begin with.

Friedman’s eagerness to finger the usual suspects — schools — also ignores six reasons why Americans are at a competitive disadvantage in the global era. Here we examine those realities, and the future these changing times have in store.

First, there are more of us occupying this country — and this planet at large — than ever before. At some point, the mathematics of population growth have to matter. The sheer number of people in today’s workforce suggests more and more people are competing for the same jobs even as we adopt more and more technology to displace human hands. That’s not a sign of a lack of education; it’s a sign that business owners comprehend that productivity gadgets and gizmos don’t require breaks, a salary or workers’ compensation.

It comes down to the numbers.

Second, I would argue the inverse in response to Friedman’s suggestion that there just isn’t enough talent to be had here in the States. Over the past 50-some years there are more colleges turning out more graduates on an annual basis than employers of the past had access to. Many foreign nationals, in fact, come to the US for higher education opportunities. On the flip side, there are only so many engineers, M.B.A.s, lawyers, scientists and the like universities can churn out before higher-end fields become saturated in much the same way low-end jobs are chalk full of contenders.

It’s no longer merely a question of whether there are clear winners and losers on the academic front.

Job scarcity is a threat, in part, because of the decades-long trend of mergers, acquisitions and a globalized labor pool. Consider: There are generally fewer than a dozen heavyweights in a given industry — everything from mainstream media to appliance manufacturing. This trend does not bode well for domestic job expansion. And if jobs aren’t available to begin with, it is tough to gain a competitive advantage even with above-average potential. So what we are seeing, in this author’s opinion, is an over-supply of talent.

But that doesn’t mean the proponents of Friedman’s dire self-fulfilling prophecy won’t get their wish.

With less competition in a given industry there is less demand for the eager young grads institutions of higher learning infuse into the job market each year. With shrinking demand and a greater supply of contenders, salaries may also take a nosedive. America at large may become competitively disadvantaged in the years ahead precisely because the “good jobs” of today are no longer perceived as a source of steady employment or adequate pay thereby diminishing American college students’ willingness to pursue them.

Already, the very cure that causes the “employment insecurity” disease is well underway: Calls for immigration reform permitting more foreign grads to take up permanent residence in the U.S. as a form of “insourced talent” are originating from Google, Microsoft and Susan Hockfield, MIT president and author of an October 19, 2009 Wall Street Journal opinion piece ironically titled “Immigrants Create Jobs and Win Nobels“.

Sure there are a lot of average people who aren’t cut out for the highest levels of business, government and academia. Just the same, there is also an ample supply of bright, talented American citizens who, for all their desirable qualifications and qualities, will nevertheless find themselves competing toe-to-toe against peers who are just as capable and “deserving” of a career break as they are.

Somebody has to lose.

Third, failure to thrive in this Brave New Economy isn’t always linked to failing schools, as Friedman argues. Good health is arguably the number one prerequisite to productivity. Healthcare is such a hot topic precisely because we cannot remain competitive if, as a country, businesses and individuals are increasingly diverting money out of the real economy just to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of healthcare.

Beyond that, few esoteric explanations matter when perfectly down-to-earth explanations suffice. When an individual charged with hiring decisions has too many promising applicants to choose from among, what assets wins out on the last round of interviews? That extra year or two of experience? Those additional GPA points? Or would it be more honest to conclude that it comes down to how well an applicant clicks with his or her interviewers? Hands-on experience, even a social or physical attribute — whatever it may be that fits a manager’s self-styled view of the proper candidate — is just as likely to make the deciding difference.

On the flip side of the coin, there is a perverse disincentive to hire the best qualified candidates. For one, they tend to be more experienced and/or highly educated, thereby commanding greater salaries. For another, few people in the position to do so hire individuals with the obvious capacity to perform so impressively that it will ultimately threaten their own job security. Friedman is right in the sense that education and talent ought to insulate Americans from the pitfalls of a failing global experiment.

Unfortunately, it does not.

Fourth, where one lives also figures largely into one’s ability to compete. Like the tough-luck stories that abound on the streets of Hollywood, those who flock to saturated markets — Los Angeles, New York, etc. — may, ironically, find fewer opportunities to leave a lasting, positive impression due to the sheer number of people in the area who are equally worthy of consideration. An over-supply of applicants for a given position, in turn, may make it more challenging for employers to select optimal talent vs. expedient talent. Translation? Being a big fish in a vast ocean still makes you a little fish. To argue, therefore, that education can somehow imbue success and that lack of it underlies a failure is a misnomer.

It’s impossible to underestimate the economics of supply and demand.

Fifth, it’s a mistake to assume that a Third World factory worker is more “competitive” as Todd Martin, former PepsiCo and Kraft Europe executive, suggests to Friedman. Third World workers come inexpensively, and that’s one competitive disadvantage that will only heighten the more educated the American workforce becomes. Why? Because talent doesn’t come cheaply — nor do the salaries of increasingly educated job seekers struggling to repay oppressive student loan debts as a direct result of their herculean efforts to rise head-and-shoulders above the crowd.

Getting noticed in an increasingly competitive job market only ups the ante — and the price tag of success.

Sixth, the assumption that Third World products are better made by virtue of their “efficiency” is also flawed. When frequent replacements and upgrades are factored into the cost of ownership, inexpensively manufactured Third World goods are, ironically, quite pricey. Case-in-point: In 2005 I replaced a 30-some-year-old GE refrigerator made in the US as well as an old but functioning washer and dryer. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t trade anything old and working for something new, sleek and modern. Why? Because the major appliances I purchased new in 2005 — all have had repeated major breakdowns requiring multiple service calls, dozens of hours on the phone, weeks waiting for parts.

Even when consumers spend top dollar, the manufacturing source and quality of today’s big-ticket items are often quite similar — with merely a change of window dressing to imply otherwise. That’s what happens when there are so many market consolidations that an appearance of choice is just that: little more than a dozen or so name badges owned, in truth, by the same handful of Big Players. It is almost laughable the degree to which consumers on complaint websites proclaim that they will never buy brand “X” again, only to unwittingly state that they intend to replace such-and-such item with brand “Y” — yet another brand or subsidiary of the very same company who manufactures brand X!

Market concentration doesn’t grow jobs any more reliably than it promotes healthy competition.

Sparing one another the hassle and headaches of poor quality goods isn’t the only reason to care, however. The build-it-to-last ethic of decades past was, perhaps, the ultimate expression of “Green“. Why? Because durable goods were seemingly less likely to break down, destined for a landfill in an absurdly short time frame. By contrast, “planned obsolescence” is the new norm, with a trend of shrinking manufacturer warranties to attest to the low vote of confidence manufacturers assign to their own products. Longevity isn’t a valued trait in a disposable society, but if we really want to go Green perhaps we should rethink the “dept-trap consumerism” cheaply designed and manufactured products facilitate. Sadly, modern rhetoric would have us believe that pride in one’s workmanship — a refusal to sell junk to unsuspecting consumers — is “noncompetitive”.

All talk of going Green aside, standardized manufacturing processes have made it difficult to make the case that company “A” is making a better product than “B” or “C”. Consequently, the maxim “You get what you pay for” has never been more suspect. True, you may get more for your money, but that does not necessarily translate into significantly better quality. What differs most dramatically is the amount of money corporations throw into slick ad campaigns, and the perception consumers have of branding and value.

It would be one thing if high-end boutiques were selling products made by First World craftspeople with higher price tags thanks to First World production costs. But when both low-end retailers and high-end retailers are selling inexpensively made foreign goods, who, exactly, are they fooling? Fairly or not, Third World origination suggests that income and human rights disparities favor corporate bottom lines. In the Third World, after all, it is not uncommon for workers to be denied bathroom breaks, sick days, maternity leave and most of the other benefits and protections Americans consider “civilized”. It is not surprising, then, that workers are more productive when they spend most of their lives in the confines of a factory, fearful that their only other option is a life of abject poverty and/or prostitution.

In short, the Third World is the modern-day economic equivalent of the pre-Civil War Old South: a place for slave-like child and adult labor, often conducted under sweatshop conditions. As if that weren’t questionable enough, outsourcing trends pose an unacceptable risk to national security as well.

So how does all of this tie in?

Unless Americans are willing to stoop to similar lows to compete with workers abroad, it’s not possible to rationally conclude that education, talent or entrepreneurship on the part of American workers will level the economic playing field anytime soon. America’s competitive disadvantage, rather, speaks to corporate opportunism — and to the politicians in recent decades who have crafted immigration, economic, trade and taxation policies that have enabled such heavily skewed commerce to become the norm.

Moreover, if being properly educated, creative or analytical adequately described, as Friedman suggests, the entirety of American competitiveness, I suspect we would see fewer reckless gambles on Wall Street and more evidence of long-range thinkers putting the brakes on short-term gain (scams) in the lead up to the Great Recession. In the real world, however, the “right reasons” are not always the cause for getting ahead — or, conversely, for falling behind.

THE WAKE UP CALL

So why care whether or not a newspaper columnists gets it so wrong? Because generalizations and simplifications aren’t a starting point for progress. Economists are projecting a ~10 percent national unemployment rate that’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. That can only mean more bankruptcies, more foreclosures and a greater amount of “dead weight” on America’s ability to compete. Only by taking a long, hard look at the unvarnished truth do we have any hope of fingering the right culprits, crafting the right solutions and ultimately reviving Main Street before the American Dream becomes a distant memory of a bygone era.

Doing nothing is not an option.

If Middle Class wages continue to decline as we move further into the 21st Century, who will consume the products and services entrepreneurs on both sides of the oceanic divide offer? Will young Americans, contemplating the grimness of their economic future and/or the need for ever-more costly and impressive academic résumés opt for traditional marriage and family life — the nation’s greatest driver of new purchases, everything from strollers and diapers to single family homes and minivans? Should Main Street’s economic House of Cards continue to crumble, will Third World workers have their own Friedmans urging them to blame themselves when factory orders dwindle and the newly affluent in Asia and India begin to see their own hopes and dreams falter? Or will they see it — we see it — for what it is: globalized economic forces beyond any single individual’s immediate control?

As kind-hearted as sweatshop proponents paint it — that throwing out more life preservers will rescue Third World residents from a life of “primitive agriculture” — building more life preservers than boats is a plausible scenario. Economic growth, after all, relies on expansion. For much of the world’s history markets were local, national, then regional. Globalization isn’t a sure-fire path to success: It’s an experiment that presupposes that natural resources will support endless growth. And it begs a simple but profound question: What happens when all markets are tapped out?

Working and Middle Class people — the majority of us — may not be the most educated, creative or adequately prepared lot, to hear Friedman and his corporate pal, Todd Martin, hash it out. But that doesn’t change the reality that the American Middle Class must earn a living wage in order for the economy — ours and theirs — to thrive. Yet it is telling that in Louisiana, a state with fewer college grads to begin with, Curt Eysink, director of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, indicates that there is an oversupply of degreed residents “we cannot employ” because job growth projections favor vocational trades and the service sector — primarily low-wage occupations such as ticket-takers, cashiers and customer service representatives that are not so prone to the insourcing/outsourcing phenomena.

Is this a sign of things to come?

Without the discretionary income Middle Class Joes and Janes inject into the marketplace, globalized economies may become relegated to a small percentage of elite income earners pitching their products and services to other elite individuals. This may be a recipe for modern-day feudalism, but it’s no way to protect and preserve the merits of free-market capitalism, let alone a profitable market share.

As dire as it all sounds, this isn’t about being pessimistic. Opening our collective eyes is the first step in defending what matters most: family, community, culture — the United States itself. If that means rethinking our definition of progress in the 21st Century sans the usual set of partisan blinders, so be it.

This is no time for subterfuge.

If Friedman wishes to talk about education, he ought to contemplate the wisdom no book learning apparently can impart in America’s best and brightest CEOs and newspaper columnists: The foresight to realize one’s employees/coworkers are also one’s customers/consumers. That means that success at the top of the economic pyramid is only as long-lived as the Middle Class foundation upon which it rests. Excuse it, deny it, defend it, ignore it: the race to the bottom is a very real risk when good intentions go too far.

It’s foolhardy — and a threat to democracy itself — for a transnational conglomerate, an economy, a nation, to conduct business using the lowest common denominator as a competitive yardstick. And yet, globalization promises to outsource gain even as it insources pain. At best, this implies that if and when international economic and trade equilibrium is achieved Third World laborers will nevertheless be unable to sustain the lifestyle Americans have taken for granted — if only by virtue of how thin finite natural resources are stretched — whereas Americans should anticipate “economic insecurity” as a way of life. That’s why Friedman and friends argue so passionately that being wildly successful — untouchable thanks to one’s creativity, innovativeness and education — is the only position of safety (familiarity). The rest of us, apparently, are destined for a mediocre economic melting pot in a neocapitalist New World Order.

Cliché though it may sound, the proactive response to an uncertain future is civic engagement: voting wisely with one’s ballot and one’s pocketbook in support the kind of economy one wishes to see. For if there’s any silver lining to this Great Recession, it’s in bringing an abstract global issue close enough to home that we can reach out, touch it — and change it.

It’s not too late.

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Resources:

America Out of Work: Is Double-Digit Unemployment Here to Stay? |TIME

Obama Adviser Summers Rejects ‘New Normal’ of Slow U.S. Growth | Bloomberg

U.S. Job Seekers Exceed Openings by Record Ratio | NYT

Are You Prepared for a Jobs Depression? | ere.net

How Long will America Lead the World? | Newsweek

Cap and Trade Dementia | The American Spectator

Schools As Scapegoats | The American Prospect

Is it Time to Retrain Business Schools? | NYT

Go Global, Young Manager | Financial Post

Is a College Degree Worthless?/MSN Money

Don’t Get That College Degree! | NY Post

Cat Gets GED: Why GPAs, Degrees and Job Titles May Be Worthless | ITBusinessEdge

Too Many Doctorates Chase Too Few Jobs | San Francisco Chronical

The Three-Year Solution | Newsweek

Asking for Student Loan Forgiveness | Businessweek

Middle Class Facing Decline in Expectations, Economic Power | Retail Traffic

21st Century Skills, Education & Competitiveness (PDF)

Jay Mathews: Why I don’t Like 21st Century Reports | Washington Post

Friedman: U.S. Education System Endangering Global Competitiveness | Education Futures

A New Look at American Competitiveness | Entrepreneurship

The World’s New Superpower | Salon

The Almighty Renminbi? | NYT

The End of the Dollar Spells the Rise of a New Order |The Independent (UK)

China will Overtake America, the Only Question is When |The Independent (UK)

China’s Economy | Brookings Institution

Lax Oversight, Globalization Erode Product Safety | CNN

Technology Made to be Broken | CSMonitor

Appliance Anxiety — Replace It or Fix It? | NYT