Pete Spiliakos writes of the plight of low-skill American labor over at First Things this morning. He notes that while the economy is humming along for the college educated, who possess a scant 3.8 percent unemployment rate, with a labor participation rate of just over 75 percent, those without a high school diploma have a labor participation rate under 50 percent, and a double-digit unemployment rate. Spiliakos continues:
Over the last thirty years, wages for workers with a four year college degree have risen while wages for male workers with less than a high school diploma have declined sharply. And yet some economists argue that, despite the high unemployment rate and declining wages, the US faces a shortage of low-skill workers.
The Atlantic Cities brings the personal cost of the low-skill wage and job depression home in its profile of Chattanooga’s working class:
Chattanooga government officials, economic-development gurus, and well-educated locals are keen on the idea that the Chattanooga economy is at a turning point thanks to its revitalized downtown; its super-speed Internet, one of the fastest in the country; and the city’s ability to lure new companies to the area. …
Highly educated workers see the Chattanooga economy as on the cusp of something big, a small-sized city full of opportunity for those who are eager and ambitious. “We want six-figure jobs to come to Chattanooga,” says 30-year-old Jack Studer, an entrepreneur who returned here after working at an investment bank and software company.
Chattanooga has been playing by the rules of the new economic game, rebuilding its downtown, installing super-speed internet, and recruiting big-name tech companies like Amazon. But for all the touting of economic optimism, “this narrative does not ring true to those living on the city’s lower economic rungs.” They tell the story of Justin Smith, an unemployed man wearing a program-provided suit to his trucker interview:
Already, Smith had run through the gamut of local employment options for someone without a college degree. In the late 1990s, he worked as a supervisor in at a yarn-dying factory, until it shipped those jobs to China. Then he worked at a DuPont plant, where he manufactured nylon for bulletproof vests and earned as much as $22 per hour. For three years, he tried to make it as a small-business owner by opening a retail store to sell midcentury modern furniture, a passion of his.
He’s not low experience, or low motivation, but he still can’t find a job, while “his friend, James Massey, 21, worked a seasonal job at Amazon with no hope of it leading to a full-time position. Residents say that’s the way both plants hire most of their workers: through temporary agencies where people can be hired and fired based on the companies’ supply and demand.” With the memory of the Great Recession’s severe restrictions still fresh, businesses are offering less stability, less security than ever, and are relying on third-party agencies to match the interchangeable tides of working-class labor to their periodic needs.
A large part of conservative opposition to the recently proposed immigration reforms derives from an effort to protect these workers from needlessly being subject to wage-depressing competition from a low-skill guest worker program that neither integrated its immigrants into American society nor helps those most struggling in the current American economy.
As Spiliakos puts it, under the current Senate proposal
There would be one labor market for low-skill native-born workers with access to the welfare state in which wage declines correlate with declining labor force participation and disintegrating families, and a second “mobile” foreign-born labor market in which workers do not have access to the welfare state and would face deportation if they underwent a spell of unemployment.
Spiliakos recounts several conservative proposals that would help these workers, not continue to deluge their segment of the labor market, one that is clearly underemployed, with waves of fresh labor with even fewer worker protections. This includes Michael Strain’s suggestion that “an employment program should include a relocation subsidy to help the long-term unemployed move from high-unemployment areas to low-unemployment areas.”
For Justin Smith, “Chattanooga isn’t primarily a tech hub or a city whose economy is on the upswing. Smith just sees a dead-end. ‘If someone paid my moving expenses, I would move now,’ he says.”