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Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop
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Why Good Factory Jobs Go Begging


Animal rescue once sent me a fabulous mutt. She was usually obedient and heartbreaking in eagerness to please. But I couldn't get her into the basement. I'd go down the stairs waving an entire bag of treats. With a pained look of indecision, she would not follow. During an earlier life, clearly, bad things had happened to her in a cellar.

We humans are animals. Whether a CEO or factory hand, we respond to rewards and punishments. In recent decades, our economy has piled rewards on executives and punishments on ordinary workers.

If a CEO says, "I won't get out of bed for less than $5 million a year," his defenders argue that you must pay large amounts to attract such prodigious talent. If a laid-off factory worker says, "I'm not giving up my unemployment check for a modestly higher pay stub," his detractors don't say, "Offer him more money." They say, "Government benefits have made him lazy." Recent stories of U.S. factories unable to fill openings have fed such negative views.

This is not to suggest that extended unemployment benefits don't sometimes deter people from accepting work. They may have other means of support or free places to live, or are learning a new trade. And don't dismiss their possible bitterness at an economic system that seems rigged against hardworking blue-collar folks.

Let's pose some questions, however, about the rewards and punishments that are shaping these idle workers' decisions.

Imagine you are jobless in La Crosse, Wis., and hear of good manufacturing opportunities in Cleveland. Are you going to uproot your family and move 600 miles to work in an industry that four years ago was laying off tens of thousands?

Or, laid off in Indianapolis, you are now studying to be a nurse.

A factory across town has started hiring and is paying higher wages than a hospital would. Are you going to pass on the high-demand profession of nursing to rejoin an industry that experience tells you does not offer secure employment?

Long before the economic meltdown, many Americans harbored prejudices against manufacturing. They'd rather sit in a cubicle for eight hours than work with their hands at better pay. Grandpa may have told them tales of toiling in the dirty and dangerous factories of yore.

But even those who know the cleaned-up truth of modern manufacturing may not qualify for modern manufacturing jobs. Such operations are computer-based and so need a higher order of skills than before.

"An auto mechanic 35 years ago could learn to fix carburetors by watching others," MIT economist Frank Levy told me. "There was no extreme pressure to read and write. Once you move to computerized fuel injection, you have to read manuals." Diagnosing these systems requires more abstract thinking.

When some car dealerships embarked on forced retraining, Levy added, about a third of the workers failed. Many had been good mechanics, but they couldn't read.

Needless to say, this is one heck of a time to cut funding for federal training programs. There are now 6 million more Americans looking for work than there were in 2006, and 18 percent less federal money for retraining them.

What does education have to do with rewards and punishments? Spending public money on training (even just reading and writing) is part of a positive message for workers — that America wants to invest in them. It wants them to experience the rewards of higher pay.

The punishment route would be to end unemployment benefits and, while you're at it, lower the minimum wage. Cry class warfare, if you must, but blue-collar workers also need reasons to get out of bed.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




7 Comments | Post Comment
The only jobs that typically result from federal job training programs are those of the people running them. They have consistently been among the least effective federal programs ever devised (which is saying something).

The only effective job training programs I've ever seen involved partnerships between community colleges and local manufacturing plants, which were set up to teach potential workers the skills needed to work in actual jobs that existed locally.

As for why nobody wants to work in manufacturing jobs in the first place, you can thank the public schools and their fixation on sending everyone to college. There was a time when high schools actually taught students skills that would help them get a job. Now, they focus on getting them into college, where they spend the first two years learning what high school failed to teach them. Those who aren't college-bound are basically discarded by the system.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Jeff Gunn
Wed Apr 11, 2012 11:49 PM
Re: Jeff Gunn
Comment: #2
Posted by: aileen abarsoza
Thu Apr 12, 2012 4:36 AM
Am pleased to write to you,have worked in a fish processing industry for the last ten years,but what i discovered
level of education is not so considered instead ability to deliver.
when i compaired the payments it was far much better than other organisations.
apparently am searching for another factory job after trying out there and seeing factory work is more paying.
please if you have one respect it.
Comment: #3
Posted by: kiggwe eria
Thu Apr 12, 2012 8:10 AM
This is a typical Froma article. It starts off light, with her making a lot of sense that would appeal to almost anyone. She identifies a problem that few can doubt exist. Then, bam, the solution is more government. Government will fix everything. Lets put our trust in our glorious leaders. I read her articles more to laugh at the repeating patterns than for actual ideas and sense.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Thu Apr 12, 2012 9:35 AM
So one government system failed (the education system is supposed to teach them to read and write??) and the answer is another government system?
Comment: #5
Posted by: Chris
Fri Apr 13, 2012 5:51 AM
Re: Chris

"So one government system failed (the education system is supposed to teach them to read and write??) and the answer is another government system?"

Of course. You didn't think those programs were actually there to help the target audience, did you?

By any rational measure, most government programs are dismal failures. That's why they don't measure their effectiveness rationally. We've spent trillions of dollars on anti-poverty programs since the advent of LBJ's "Great Society," yet we have more poor people today--both as a percentage of the population and in actual numbers--than we did when they started. To most rational people, that would indicate failure.

To Democrats, it just means we need to spend more money (that we don't have).
Comment: #6
Posted by: Jeff Gunn
Fri Apr 13, 2012 9:58 PM
My grandfather worked in a small factory town west of Boston. I have a photo of him at the plant. He was covered in soot and grime from his labor and he was the dirtiest one of the boiler house crew. I am not sure if he knew English when he came to America. When I was younger I was told he was a boiler tender and I pictured him watching gages on a boiler. The photo showed me he was the one fueling the boiler when fuel was coal and manual labor was the method of delivery. CEO or laborer or skilled worker, the work ethic is the key. There are numerous ways to learn the 3Rs which lead to other opportunities. Someone who turned their back to learning at 15 will either stay that way or find a way once they realize their error. This is not new to any generation. I see what any one person can do with determination in the photo of my grandfather.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Michael Miller
Tue Apr 17, 2012 7:04 PM
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