Economics

Is Shop Class Soulcraft?

Yesterday I came across an intriguing post in Paul Krugman’s blog:

[T]oday’s Times has a fascinating story about a resurgent industry being hampered by lack of skilled workers, offering sharply higher wages, and investing in training. The skill in question? Operating sewing machines.

Notice, by the way, that the story ties in with my last post, about globalization possibly running out of steam. What’s driving the demand for garment workers is a modest but significant reshoring of apparel production.

I had to check to make sure I hadn’t stumbled onto a posting from Matthew Crawford:

Around 1985, articles began to appear in education journals with such titles as “The Soaring Technology Revolution” and “Preparing Kids for High-Tech and the Global Future.”  Of course, there is nothing new about American futurism.  What is new is the wedding of futurism to what might be called “virtualism”: a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy.  New and yet not so new—for fifty years now we’ve been assured that we are headed into a “postindustrial society.”  While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not.  If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help.  Because they are in China.  And in fact there are chronic labor shortages in both construction and auto repair.  Yet the trades and manufacturing have long been lumped in the mind of the pundit class as “blue collar,” and their requiem is intoned.  More recently, this consensus has begun to show some signs of cracking; in 2006 the Wall Street Journal wondered whether “skilled [manual] labor is becoming one of the few sure paths to a good living.”

This passage is from the introduction to Crawford’s fascinating 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft, who Krugman seems to eerily channel:

In general, if U.S. manufacturing revives, we’ll see that what we really need are a lot of lost manual skills. Back in 2007 there was a real shortage of machinists, pipe-fitters, and the like. This may be coming back.

This probably isn’t the future many people expected. But it’s better than no jobs at all.

Here again, I think back to Crawford:

Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such [manual] competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hardheaded: the hardheaded economist will point out the “opportunity costs” of spending one’s time making what can be bought, and the hardheaded educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as jobs of the past.  But we might pause to consider just how hardheaded these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people towards the most ghostly kinds of work.

I haven’t researched this subject enough to offer more than an observation or two: Crawford’s mention of construction and auto repair doesn’t fully recognize the influx of technology causing massive disruptions to trade businesses, to the point that independent auto shops have to carry massive overhead to service many models less than a decade old.  In some cases, purchasing a new car will lock the new owner into having it serviced at a dealership, and the chronic shortage of auto mechanics is disturbingly turning into a glut of former mechanics; such as a friend, an unemployed auto mechanic, with more than a decade of experience turning wrenches currently learning the HVAC trade.  Though Crawford is not blind to the technological dilemma, and his statement about automotive technology is well-taken:

How has the relentless complication of cars and motorcycles, for example, altered the jobs of those that service them?  We often hear of the need for an “upskilling” of the workforce, to keep up with the technological change.  I find the more pertinent issue to be: What sort of personality does one need to have, as a twenty-first century mechanic, to tolerate the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines?

I find it curious that introductions of technology in many aspects seem to be in the furtherance of two goals: one, to increase margins in sales to individual customers with little or no value added from the product, and two, reducing or outright eliminating demand for labor in circumstances where shortages are appearing.  This tends to lead to a single, depressing future—escalating consumer prices in the furtherance of profit extraction, more than offset by flat (at best) wages.  

Literally no one reads what I write, so I have no illusions that this posting will have any impact whatsoever.  But I wish someone could put Crawford and Krugman into a room and record their lively discussion.  Considering Krugman straddles economics, education, and mass media, I wonder if the results could be world-changing.

 

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