Back in 2016, I posted this letter from a plant manager:
I have been reading your posts regarding the abandonment of middle America. This is of particular poignancy for me as I was shuttled around between various rural industrial towns and suburban working class as well as upper middle class communities during my youth. This was still when there was a carrot being dangled and a pot of gold to chase even in the most meager cow towns. It’s not just rural America or the rust belt that has been abandoned as Mr [Kevin D.] Williamson’s posts would suggest. The malaise is everywhere. Part of it which few seem to be addressing lies in the attitude of the educational establishment which they purvey to the cannon fodder in their grasp. Even in the 1970s the pervasive sentiment was “What, do you want to work in a factory?”
They succeeded in producing generations with expectations completely out of line with the reality before them. Anecdotally, I can offer this tidbit of my experience. I am by trade an engineer and a manager. I run an engineering department as well as the tool and die and mechanical / electrical maintenance departments for a ( gasp, these still exist? ) Midwestern metalworking company. When we run employment advertisements, the replies to the ads are as follows; Maintenance: Eastern European recent immigrants, primarily Polish. Tool and Die: mostly US born some Polish and Russian, but all are in their 50’s or older, nothing coming down the pike. Engineering: Recent graduates of Indian or Mideastern origin, very few native born. And none of the applications are from native born with experience. It’s as if they vanished into thin air.
And yet, we read about the multitudes who are unemployed. They were merely led astray by those who were entrusted with their developmental care. Now they really do have no applicable skills. And as for the factory floor production positions within our company, the vast majority of applicants we receive are Hispanic. We are a short bus ride from the most impoverished ghettos you could imagine, but few applications come from those quarters. The complacency of generations of parents, placing blind trust in the motivations of the bureaucrats of the kid factories is at least partially to blame. The decline and abandonment in rural areas has been the thread which tied these posts together, but the underlying disease is shot throughout the entire body of our nation as well as most of the western world.
The same reader writes this morning:
My situation remains the same in regards to the inability to attract qualified candidates.
When you posted it, it attracted the scorn of some of your commenters and I had replied privately to you the following:
Because it’s private, I’m not going to post identifying information. Let me tell you what I can about it, though, to give you an idea of who this guy is, and what his company is about.
The company is located in the suburban inner ring of a major Midwestern city, “well within the access of convenient public transportation.
We are by no means a skinflint employer. We offer employees comprehensive 100% medical/dental/optical coverage at no cost to the individual and $22 per week for full family coverage. We also offer a legal plan for employees which provides civil law help. All Employees are eligible for a 401K plan which is 30% employer matched up to the legal limit.
He talks about starting wages for machine operators on the plant floor, and what other workers at the plant can make per hour. It’s really good. The plant manager added that despite running an ad for an entry level trainee position on the major job aggregator sites, the plant received not a single application from anyone wishing to move up from a tool and die position. The manager (remember, this was three years ago) said that the plant received hundreds of applications from
soon to be graduates of various engineering disciplines from all over the country. Some of which were finishing the Master’s level. None of the engineering schools include anything more than a cursory tip of the hat towards industrial practices, hence my tilt towards training someone smart enough to have finished a toolmaker’s apprenticeship and having the prior exposure to shop floor “real world”. I will be choosing from the applications received, with the hope that the candidate will fully appreciate the need for shop floor troubleshooting as well as manipulation of vector graphics on a cad screen.
In today’s letter, the plant manager writes to update his 2016 post:
At that point ( May of 2016 ) we had begun to advertise on the major job aggregator sites as well as the major [city] newspaper on Sundays. We placed a large physical Help Wanted sign in plain view of the thousands of cars passing by each day. And here’s the kicker, not only do we offer an attractive wage, but we offer a 100% coverage PPO medical plan with a nominal weekly family contribution. You can’t BUY coverage like that. And yet, for all this I have received zero interest from recent BS engineering graduates for the manufacturing field.
Apparently, chasing a career in code grinding is substantially sexier than the passé drudgery of making things. The one hire in this time period was a Tool And Die Maker who is looking at retirement in less than five years. We have offered apprenticeships but to deaf ears. The most perplexing thing is that my presumption of desire to pursue what would be an upwardly mobile career path by the lower working class young people in our area with the training we offer has been nil. And so it goes.
I would appreciate hearing from readers like this man, one who has actual experience with the reality of hiring in America today, as opposed to readers who have passionate belief in their theories.
UPDATE: Reader Danny Jewell comments:
I can tell you that it isn’t just the Midwest and Northeast undergoing these struggles. I work in the management of a small/medium injection and rotational molding company in Orange County, California. Probably 95 to 99% of our ‘unskilled’ workforce is Hispanic. The only whites we have working for us are over the age of fifty.
We are in desperate need of good, hardworking, punctual folk to man machines and to work on the assembly line. And yet, none can be found amongst the men (really boys) of my Millenial generation. We are also in desperate need of experienced injection molding personnel. None can be found either online or with signs (exactly the strategies attempted by your correspondent).
It is true that we could boost pay & benefits somewhat, but I would point out that the rate is not known to applicants, and so we should expect a large number of applicants turning us down if it was the payrate holding them back.
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
Surely one reason for what this man is seeing in his job applications is: NAFTA.
NAFTA was passed in 1994, and like all trade deals, NAFTA was a *deal*. That meant each side gave up something to get something. What the U.S. “gave up” was basically jobs involving making things, especially making things with metal. That sector was going to be decimated via relocation to assembly plants in Mexico. What the U.S. would then “get” in exchange was dominance in tech and finance, etc.: Silicon Valley and Wall Street.
If you remember back to the mid-1990s, you’ll also remember that the Clinton administration was focused on the “jobs of tomorrow.” Coincident with NAFTA, and precisely *because* of NAFTA, there was a whole raft of policy changes boosting funding to STEM fields in the universities and also supporting new programs in K-12, such as “STEM Academies” in public high schools. “STEM” sounds pretty inclusive, but in light of what policy makers knew would be the real effect of NAFTA, the “engineering” was really mostly about computers, and in total a lot of it amounted to just coding.
Meanwhile, the media and popular culture set about to lionize Silicon Valley and its oh-so-hip culture. We all swooned over the $billions to be made in this new bonanza. But Peter Thiel really did nail it. They promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters—later 280.
So a 25-year-old in America today has lived his entire life in a system designed to cultivate careers in computers and finance. That is the normative path that the culture has set before him (or her), and that is where all the educational program energy and cultural energy has been. And, let’s face it, who is going to study hard to become a mechanical engineer when “everyone knows” that all those factory-based companies are drying up? Who wants to prepare for a career in a dying industry?
I just wanted to point all this out, since describing this situation as a matter of people not “wanting” to work in such industries doesn’t seem to me to capture the reality.
UPDATE.3: Reader Skip:
I am an employer myself. I own and run a small electronics manufacturing company that serves the automotive industry. I suppose I am kind of lucky in where I am, in a thriving midwestern region that still has a lot of talent to draw on. When I’m hiring for the manufacturing side I need people that have fine motor skills for soldering and repair, or who can make wiring harnesses, or run power tools. I also need people who know how to run our automated SMT line (surface mount technology) – this requires a balance of computer savvy and assembly art (you have to know the limitations of automation to make these machines do things their designers did not envision).
My SMT operator is 49. He’s been trying to train a younger guy, around age 30, and while he’s talented, he is neither focussed nor consistent, both of which are critical to the job. The younger guy is unmarried, seldom dates, and spends his evenings mostly computer gaming. I’m not sure he’ll really be able to fully take over the job if needed (I hope I’m wrong on this).
Engineers, though, are hard to find. Like in the original article, many of the applicants have been applying from abroad, or are here on immigrant visas. But whether foreign or domestic, most of them lack experience that we critically need. We’re small, and don’t have the time to train up fresh graduates, and even people with 10-20 years experience rarely have the experience we need. Engineering training for the last few decades has too often been in what I would call applications-engineering, which is basically putting together products from already-engineered sub-components. We need people with the knowledge and creativity to design products from the ground-up as that is the only way we can compete on a cost-basis with larger firms or cheaper (and lower-tech) Chinese products (the segment I sell into is very very cost-sensitive). Well, that’s great that you can bring together 3 different modules to do the job, but do you even understand what those modules are doing, or whether you are overbuying? Why not design the raw components right into the project?
And it’s the same aggravation with the software – engineers and coders seemingly only know how to combine already-written libraries and code without any understanding of what that code is really doing. Low-level code writing just is not taught the way it used to be, and relying on someone else’s code is dangerous in the automotive world.
In both cases too, people mostly want to work on gadgets and consumer goods (thinking they’ll make a quick score there), not the hard and unglamorous design work for critical sub-systems in cars, trucks, or other machinery.
So while I have been able to recruit locally for the assembly work, I’m increasingly having to use head-hunters to recruit nationally to fill engineering slots.
I wanted to add too what a supplier shared with me: where they are at (and have been for decades) in northern Kentucky, making complex wiring harnesses, they have had a major retention problem even at wages approaching $30.00 and hour. Drug problems and absenteeism are a plague, especially for workers aged 20-25, and those were not issues 10-15 years ago. They are now facing a dilemma: either move, or shut down. The owner is in his mid 60s, and moving is not desirable for him. There are plenty of *people* around, people who are claiming unemployment or disability, and few seem to actually want to work at anything laborious, or stay drug-sober on the job, which is a safety problem.
UPDATE.4: A reader points to this NYT story from 2016, and comments, “Drugs have ruined this country.” Excerpt:
A few years back, the heavy-equipment manufacturer JCB held a job fair in the glass foyer of its sprawling headquarters near here [Savannah, GA], but when a throng of prospective employees learned the next step would be drug testing, an alarming thing happened: About half of them left.
That story still circulates within the business community of this historic port city. But the problem has gotten worse.
All over the country, employers say they see a disturbing downside of tighter labor markets as they try to rebuild from the worst recession since the Depression: They are struggling to find workers who can pass a pre-employment drug test.