The “Skills Gap” and the Education Bubble

Originally published in TIA Daily.

In early 2009, during the first few dreadful months of the Obama administration, I set out looking for signs of hope by taking an inventory of America’s remaining cultural reserves of strength. This included a look at what Americans turn to for their daily entertainment, particularly on television. I wrote several installments before I had to cut it off to cover the sudden rise of the Tea Party movement. The series was no longer necessary, because what I was trying to demonstrate as a potentiality—the resurgence of America’s individualistic culture—had become an actuality.

But I have wanted to revisit the series because I did not get to one of the points that I think is most interesting: the portrayal of work and production in the culture. Don’t look to Hollywood for this; the businessman is still the stock villain in Hollywood films. Look instead to television, which arguable has a bigger impact because it is what we view for entertainment on a daily basis. And what we find is a recent rise in “reality” television shows about work

For the most part, it is not white-collar work. “The Apprentice” briefly approximated a positive portrayal of this kind of work, but like Donald Trump himself, it mixed genuine elements of regard for productivity with sordid office politics and pompous preening. Now that it has degraded into a celebrity game show, those elements have completely taken over.

But when it comes to blue-collar work, there has been a kind of revival. The central example is the Mike Rowe phenomenon.

For those who don’t already know him, Mike Rowe is a former opera singer whose TV career started with voice-over work and a stint as a QVC pitchman—and then took an interesting twist when Rowe conceived and created the hit Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs.” (See a surprisingly good New York Times profile here.)

The premise of the show is simple. Rowe travels the country visiting people who do dirty jobs—roofers, farmers, garbage collectors, miners, whale autopsy technicians, and so on—and he tries his best to do their jobs with them. He does it gamely, with a distinctive sense of humor that is at once smart-alecky and self-deprecating. The show has a particular appeal to kids, who like the “gross-out” factor, but its real heart is a celebration of work.

Rowe recently described the origin of the show.

For most of his life, my grandfather woke up clean and came home dirty. In between, he accomplished things that were nothing short of miraculous. Some days he might re-shingle a roof. Or rebuild a motor. Or maybe run electricity out to our barn. He helped build the church I went to as a kid, and the farmhouse my brothers and I grew up in. He could fix or build anything, but to my knowledge he never once read the directions. He just knew how stuff worked.

I remember one Saturday morning when I was 12. I flushed the toilet in the same way I always had. The toilet, however, responded in a way that was completely out of character. There was a rumbling sound, followed by a distant gurgle. Then everything that had gone down reappeared in a rather violent and spectacular fashion.

Naturally, my grandfather was called in to investigate, and within the hour I was invited to join [him] and my dad in the front yard with picks and shovels.

By lunch, the lawn was littered with fragments of old pipe and mounds of dirt. There was welding and pipe-fitting, blisters and laughter, and maybe some questionable language. By sunset we were completely filthy. But a new pipe was installed, the dirt was back in the hole, and our toilet was back on its best behavior. It was one of my favorite days ever.

As the show’s opening voice-over tells us, it is a tribute to “the men and women who do the jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.”

The idea that productive work is what makes civilized life possible is a very broad and profound principle, of which “Dirty Jobs” covers just one small slice. But it is very encouraging to see the show’s runaway success, as well as the growing number of spin-offs and copycats.

Rowe also provides the voice-over narration for the Discovery Channel show “The Deadliest Catch,” which made minor celebrities out of some rough-hewn Alaskan crab fishermen. They are very rough-hewn, living on coffee and nicotine and swearing like, well, like sailors, while they work 30-hour shifts for weeks at a time on the Bering Sea. The late Phil Harris, captain of the Cornelia Marie, was typical. He could have won an Emmy for the Least Glamorous Man on Television, but he had an extraordinary life story, starting work on a fishing vessel at age 7 and becoming a captain by the age of 21.

I remember the moment I realized what a phenomenon “The Deadliest Catch” had become. In the optometrist’s waiting room, I flipped open a copy of People magazine and saw an item on Sig and Edgar Hansen, the captain and deck boss of the Northwestern. Thanks to “The Deadliest Catch,” a couple of uncouth fishermen found their way onto the pages of gossip magazines next to the glossy pictures of Hollywood celebrities.

The success of these two shows has spawned an array of imitators: shows about Alaskan bush pilots and ice road truckers, about loggers, gold miners, and lobstermen. And Mike Rowe has turned his fame into a real business empire, which includes work as a spokesman for Ford trucks, Caterpillar, and industrial supply company W.W. Grainger.

It also includes non-profit work aimed at increasing public regard for the skilled trades, which recently led him to offer some interesting testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. To his fans, it may have been startling to see Mike Rowe in a suit and tie, but the facts he gave to the committee were more startling.

Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation, and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them….

In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

There is a scene late in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged in which there are waiting lists years long for unskilled jobs but a desperate shortage of any kind of skilled labor. In our own way, we are experiencing the same problem now.

Rowe’s proposed solution—a “national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor”—doesn’t quite hit the right issue. Besides, he’s already doing a much better job of that than the government could ever do.

The real solution has to be deeper. On a cultural-intellectual level, Rowe is up against the mentality and philosophy of the welfare state. In effect, the welfare state tells people that they are entitled to be provided with everything they need, regardless of whether they work for it. This makes work seem like an unnecessary imposition—especially hard and dirty work. As Rowe says, “The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work.”

But Rowe also names a more specific cause: the way our educational system pushes people out of the skilled trades. It is not just that it is designed to push them into college, because it doesn’t really do that. The public schools certainly do not prepare students with the advanced math, science, and reading skills necessary for higher education. So it is not that the schools are pushing students up to a higher intellectual level of work, so that they’ll all be architects and engineers instead of plumbers and welders. It is just pushing them out of the trades.

On a political level, the issue is that government-run education is a form of central economic planning, which results in the usual misallocation of resources.

Government schools are run with no connection to the actual economic demand for labor. In fact, it is run with a contemptuous disdain for any such considerations. There is an open hostility to any kind of “career-oriented” approach to education. So our schools turn out a high proportion of students who are educated for nothing and fit for nothing—and who end up unemployed or underemployed.

You see a similar phenomenon on the college level, where vast subsidies and low-interest loans have disconnected the economics of paying for college from the economics of one’s eventual career. This has contributed to the higher education bubble by encouraging students to treat college as a four-year vacation from adult responsibilities, rather than as serious preparation for paying work—the approach they might take if they had to pay their own way. This is also why you see young people encouraged to take on massive student loans to pursue specialized degrees that have little economic value. An unsubsidized private lender would balk at loaning a student $100,000 to obtain a degree in social work or French literature, but subsidies and guarantees—not to mention the Obama administration’s outright nationalization of college finance—have conspired to lure student like lemmings over the cliff into a pit of debt.

There are many things wrong with government education, particularly the problems of ideological corruption and indoctrination. But it is also important to remember that education is an economic activity, perhaps the most important economic activity since it makes so much other activity possible. And government involvement in education is designed to destroy all economic signals that would coordinate education with employment. It is another example of how central planning destroys real planning.

This is also another example of “planning to fail.” Remember the old saying that when you fail to plan, you plan to fail? Well, the converse is also true: when you plan to fail, you fail to plan. When you are hostile to a value, you will deliberately avoid or sabotage any attempt to plan for how to achieve it. Remember Rowe’s point about the value we place on work. If you think work is a value, indeed that it is the central activity of life, you will believe that it should be taken into account in the plans people make in every part of their lives, particularly in education. If you are hostile to work, you will attempt to cut off and thwart any intrusion of individual economic planning into education. That is what government involvement in education has done.

We have Mike Rowe to thank for pointing out one of the consequences of this failure. In the Facebook comments below his Senate testimony, one commenter notes that Rowe has “said and done more in a few paragraphs to promote and show the way to job creation than our sorry president has done in his whole time in office! MIKE ROWE for PRESIDENT!”

I’m not sure he’d make the best candidate for president, but I have to admit there is something to this idea.

After all, it’s a dirty job.

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