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Good Jobs … But No Workers

In yesterday’s J.D. Vance thread, I mentioned that reader Sam M., who lives in western Pennsylvania, has written in this space, and privately to me, that the employers in his area who offer good manufacturing jobs cannot fill them. Sam adds:

Yes. It’s a weird thing around here. I graduated high school in 1991, and I consider my class “the last of the optimists.” The schools and the community and our parents were definitely telling us, get out of here, go to college, there will be nothing for you.” But some really smart kids still did it. They tended to stop a few years after that.

Well, the kids listened, and a lot of the highest performing students left and never came back. A lot of that was because they entered fields that offer few jobs in our area. Any kid with a head on his shoulders who DID take a job in a plant or enter a trade was told repeatedly that he was doing the wrong thing, or wasting his talents.

Well, now we are in trouble. Try to find an electrician around here. The ones who DID go to the trades can write their own ticket. They generally make more money than I do, with my Ivy League degree, whether they work on their own or bounce from plant to plant demanding higher rates.

Problem is, the plants all see the crisis looming. In the next 10-20 years, about half their skilled workforce is going to retire, and there is nobody behind those people. They all left. Right now, they figure that even if every single local high school graduate went to work in local factories, we would not be able to keep up with demand. Despite constant automation and improved efficiencies.

Most of the plants here are on mandatory overtime. They do not have enough workers to fill the jobs. Despite recent efforts to ramp up starting pay dramatically.

And yet… if you go downtown on a Wednesday afternoon, you will see quite a few 20-40 guys in pajama pants pushing umbrella strollers. These are not third shift guys helping out their wives. These are dudes who are not working. And not married.

You can attribute that to a lot of things. Not all of them are as charitable as they should be. But I can tell you that the working class guys I know have more animosity toward the pajama pant guys than they EVER had toward anybody based on race, sexual orientation or any of the other prejudices.

I think that IS different than when I was a kid. We always had town drunks. But the town drunks could always seem to find work. And even the lowest paying work (sawmills, generally) would be enough to support a family of four with a stay at home mom. And a large degree of dignity.

Now it isn’t. And as best I can tell, it’s harder to hold down a job as a meth addict than it is to hold down a job as a drunk, even a whiskey drunk.

PS: The guys who get in trouble with the law almost always start with DUIs. When I was a kid, you could basically drive drunk all you wanted. Not saying that was a good thing at all. But 40 years ago, the town drunk wasn’t getting tossed into jail three times a year for drunk driving. Now he is.

The dignity afforded to that guy on the bottom rung is less than it was. Partly due to systematic forces. And partly due to a culture that values work and dignity far less than it used to.

It’s both/and.

This is about culture. I was just telling a reader today, in correspondence, about how a family doctor friend of mine is seeing the rise of “failsons” in his middle and upper middle class patients. These are young men with all the educational advantages of their class, but they just have no desire to work, or to do anything but sit around. You can’t blame it on poverty or deprivation. So what is it?

UPDATE: A reader writes:

Re: Good Jobs…But No Workers. I grew up in Western PA in the 80s and 90s and can certainly attest that most of us with talent departed the area. I can further attest that opportunities abound for young men who remain that have a modicum of initiative and work ethic, yet sadly many of those opportunities go unclaimed. During one of my most recent trips to my hometown, I snapped this remarkable photo from the placemat of our favorite local pizza joint. Companies are basically pleading with young men to learn and perform skilled labor for great money (and no student loan debt burdens) yet have precious few takers. Just unbelievably sad seeing this torpor of malaise strangling the young men in our culture.

UPDATE.2: Sam M. responds:

Well, I will stand by my assessment that it’s both/and.

I know I talked about this before, but in the summer of 1993, home from college, I worked at a brake factory. Guys my age, straight out of high school with no developed skills, were making $14.40 an hour. If you were greedy and worked second or third shift for the differential, you got $15.84. You went UP from there.

FWIW, accounting for inflation, those guys were making the 2019 equivalent of about $28 an hour. I busted my hump that summer, and cleared enough that I could have bought a brand new Ford Ford F-150, with money to spare. I knew guys who were making 75-80k. It was brutal work. You can’t even imagine. But those guys were making a ton of money.

Even the best jobs don’t pay that anymore. Especially unskilled. Which I am sure someone will say, well, that’s how it goes. But it’s impossible for people who didn’t live it to really understand the dignity that was afforded those guys. They had more than money. They had cultural capital. They could afford a decent truck, to keep their wife happy if she chose to stay at home, to pay for Catholic school if they wanted that for their kids. They could afford to send their kids to Penn State or Pitt. A guy who simply worked hard.

That is still possible, but it’s way, way harder. And the kids going off to college seem to have more of an advantage. And the kids who stay suffer more of a stigma.

The culture and the economics can’t really be separated. You can’t just say, well, it’s one or the other.

Thing is, we made choices to make it that way. Look, lots of people are better off. We made brakes. Now we don’t. The plant is closed. I have no doubt that your brakes cost less in real dollars than they used to. So does your spark plug and your table and your Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle underwear and your Spongebob silverware. And it’s cheapter to get to the beach and the Internet is nice. And all that cheapness makes a real material difference in your life and in mine. It’s impossible to deniy that. Yes. My brakes are cheaper than they would be if they were still made here in Ridgway. Just like my underwear is cheaper now that it’s made in Bangladesh instead of North Carolina. And the Bandladeshi guy making the underwear is (I hope) better off. But there are a few people worse off. We transferred money and dignity from one guy to the other. And the people doing the transferring had someone else take it on the chin for them. Me. My social class. I did the transferring.

So I try to be careful about just saying hey, it’s culture, straighten up.

If I had gotten a girl pregnant or flunked out of college or made some other dramatic life error, I could have simply recovered by going to work at the brake factory. I would have been fine.

Until I wouldn’t have been. And some people got caught in that exact situation. And all our complaining about lazy pajama pants guy doesn’t change that.

Still, that guy in the pajama pants. It is STILL true that if he sobered up, straightened up and showed up at a factory for more than two weeks in a row, he’d be making a family sustaining wage in a few months, tops. And all the griping about country club republicans and limousine liberals does not change that fact.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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