If Donald Trump becomes the next president of the United States — which is looking slightly more likely — he will, so to speak, hit the wall.
Yes, he will hit his wall: the beautiful, technological marvel he plans to build along the southern border to keep out people he thinks are going to harm the United States.
Yet the first thing he might have to do is to send recruiters into Mexico and beyond to find craftsmen to build his wall.
Mexico might not pay for the Trump wall, but Mexicans most certainly will build it. The reason: there is a critical labor shortage in the United States of skilled craftsmen and women.
There are still way too many unskilled people arguing over what the minimum wage should be for selling a hamburger and far too few who can swing a hammer, use a spirit level, lay a brick, connect a sewer line or wire a building.
These people, these yeomen in 21st-century society, are in critically short supply. Known as the “crafts,” they are the people who build our bridges, water systems, power plants, submarines and other military materiel, and restore power after a storm.
Whether you are trying to build a new suburban house, a ship or a road, you need the crafts: people who work with tools and their bodies. Their brains, too, for it is not brainless work. Do not ever think it is. The glass sheathing on those super tall, super skinny buildings in New York would not have gotten there, or stayed there, without people with brainpower.
The crafts shortage is not hypothetical: it is affecting new home construction and big projects, like new nuclear plants in South Carolina and Georgia.
Utilities have special programs to train people to climb poles, string lines and become first responders after severe storms. These are secure jobs with benefits and retirement packages. Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you get round your local utility hiring office.
The political response to the crafts shortage is predictable. There are demands for trade schools, for special courses, for subsidized apprenticeships. As usual, money will be requested. It is not a money problem. It is a human resource allocation problem.
There is simply too much social, I repeat, social value attached to a university education — an education that often wastes time, while the students learn what they should have learned in high school.
A degree from one of the second- and third-tier universities is increasingly of little value in getting work. How many political scientists, communications executives, and marketing gurus does society need? An arts degree qualifies its recipient in today’s market to be an Uber driver or such.
Societal pressure says if you do not have a university degree, you are inferior. Everyone without a degree butts up against the mortar-board ceiling at some time.
Yet much of what passes for education is, in fact, the ability to pass tests. Test-passers move up the system and seek other test-passers to keep the game going.
But we are happy to entrust air traffic control, policing, ship piloting, EMT response and other life-saving jobs to people with only high school educations. All those welds on ships, nuclear plants and bridges, are the work of high school graduates and dropouts.
I am happy to report that one of my wife’s nephews has told his mother, an Ivy Leaguer no less, that rather than going through the warehouse-as-education system, he is going to be a welder. I hope he works on worthwhile things, like a bridge or a submarine, not on Trump’s silly wall.
Let the Mexicans have that as their jobs program — which we will pay for. Believe me.
Photo credit: Drew Coffman, “Welding” used under Creative Commons license
Ann MacLachlan says
I couldn’t agree more. France, where I live, has preceded the United States in this trend, despite its highly trained workforce. In France the most revered person in every village at the beginning of the 20th century was (after the curé) the local schoolteacher. Manual labor has come to be seen as something you do if you can’t get through school. The grueling exam one takes to exit high school, and which determines the rest of one’s personal trajectory, does not measure manual skills. Skilled craftsmen are in short supply.
Social valuation of something other than college degrees is greatly needed, but it’s an uphill road in a country that is so used to worshiping a cast of people officially known as “intellectuals.”
Kate Greer says
It is the same in the UK. University students racking up huge debts that only the few will ever be able to pay back IF they can ever get a well paid job whereas the ‘trades’ are now taken over by mostly Eastern European workers who do a great job and are skilled. I dread to think what will happen when Brexit starts to take effect if these workers are denied access to the country. The youth of this country need to get their act together and stop opting for the soft option.
Linda Gasparello says
Thank you for your comment. Everything that you write is true here, except we are not facing Brexit. We certainly have an abundance of heavily indebted graduates seeking few jobs, and an endless and almost banal emphasis on university education.
After reading”there is a labor shortage” I have to agree with most of the commentary. However, being in the trades most of my adult life I feel one of the reasons for a shortage is the lack of pay and respect for what we do. A lot of folks have the impression that our skill is not worthy of a decent financial return . I do take some issue with the disparaging remark concerning EMT’s. I have been one for 30 years and have saved lives, helped a woman give birth and comforted many people in time of crisis. In the future please take a longer moment to think about what you write . Thank you
Linda Gasparello says
Thank you for your thoughtful note. I am sympathetic on the pay issue because my father was a mechanic, but I think that may change as a consequence of the shortage. I have great respect for EMTs and did not in any way mean to disparage them — and thank you for your live-saving service.