This is not a partisan political rant, I promise. However, this morning on the drive home from physical therapy, I heard a local public radio piece that made me so angry that I couldn’t get it out of my head. You could apply this post to the theme of technology companies or education, but I know that it’s off-topic for this blog. That said, it’s my blog. Read or skip as you like.
In a nutshell, the interview discussed job training for industrial sewing workers who are needed in Detroit-area manufacturing. The woman being interviewed (sorry, I have no names) spoke proudly about an initiative she’s heading, getting industrial sewing programs offered in area community colleges with funding available for eligible students through Michigan Works, a group of organizations (some run by the state, some private non-profits) focused on helping unemployed people find jobs. When asked how she came up with this idea, she said that she talked with someone from the Detroit Garment Group at an event and was told that they were frustrated with the amount of training new workers needed. Home sewing skills are not applicable to industrial sewing and the DGG person was displeased at the waste of putting someone through all that training just to have the worker decide that “it was not for them”. The interviewee assured the radio host that there were plenty of industrial sewing jobs with garment makers, auto manufacturers, and others in the area, and that jobs pay around $10/hour.
The tone of the interview was “look at this great thing we’re doing to support both local industry and unemployed people!” I wasn’t in my car long enough to hear if the interviewer took any phone calls after that. The host was positive and asked no probing questions; it was a local business puff piece and nothing more.
But, let’s break that down. Companies need workers with specific skills, skills that do not give those workers any job flexibility or, with the condition of US manufacturing, many future options at all. That need is being met by having government-run institutions develop programs for students with government-provided funding (or I suppose the students can pay for it themselves). So, taxpayers are paying to train workers for $10/hour jobs at for-profit, private companies.
No no no no no. I’m sorry, members of Detroit Garment Group, but if you need industrial sewing workers, you should take responsibility for training them. Some drop out after training? Since the other options would be indentured servitude or slavery, that’s a fact you simply have to deal with. If you have an industry group for marketing purposes, pool funds to pay for training workers as well, to alleviate the burden on smaller companies without looking for a government hand-out.
Why have we accepted that it is the responsibility of individuals and the government to provide specialized workers to corporations? Yes, I think it’s in all of our best interests to ensure that K-12 education — or K-14 with “free” community college, perhaps — gives students essential job and life skills as well as basic general knowledge. I also think that specialized vocational education programs in high school should be given more respect. (Mike Rowe, pictured above, is a hero to me for the way he supports, ennobles, and advocates for skilled tradespeople.) But if a for-profit company needs workers with particular training, and it can’t find enough with the needed experience, it’s the company’s responsibility to train more or pay for their training. After all, who benefits most from that worker’s future output?
I’m not saying we should return to the medieval guild system, but the jobs under discussion were not craftsman level, either. $10/hour in the Detroit metro area is a few pennies under the living wage for one adult according to MIT’s excellent living wage calculator. (I also earned $10/hour as an unskilled worker… 25 years ago.) So, these companies expect potential workers to go through an unpaid training program that doesn’t guarantee them a job at the end, for a chance at a job that pays less than a living wage. Not only that, they have the gall to expect the Michigan taxpayers or those workers to foot the bill.
Bravo to companies that are trying to bring jobs to Detroit for workers of every skill level. It’s important for a healthy economy to have jobs for unskilled and low-skilled workers. That said, if your company can’t afford to provide a moderate level of specialized training and pay a living wage, perhaps your industry is not viable here.
I admire companies like Shinola — beyond coveting almost every item they make — because they invest in craftsmanship. In this short video, Shinola managers explain how they knew they wouldn’t find experienced watchmakers in Detroit, so they brought trainers from Ronda AG to work hands-on with each assembly line employee. They have a open position in industrial sewing (experience required), but they have quite a variety of jobs available, not all of which require college degrees or specific training.
I began this post by saying that it wasn’t partisan; I think there’s something objectionable in the interviewee’s program for people on either side of the aisle. Government spending! Borderline living wage job that requires specialized training! For me it’s not political as much as it’s an issue of respect, responsibility, and realism. A company should respect a worker enough to give her specific training for the job and pay her enough to support (at least) herself*. A company should take responsibility for obtaining the assets needed to operate, and that includes those skilled workers. And realistically, some trainees will become excellent employees, but others will be incapable of the work, drop out, or be revealed as lazy or awful individuals. That’s how people are.
*Personally, I’m intrigued by the system in other countries where unskilled younger workers can be paid less while learning a job, but then the minimum wage goes up. When I was cashiering at McDonald’s at 16, it was fair that I was paid a low wage because I was gaining experience in elementary job skills: showing up on time, respecting authority, etc. The employer could pay less because a person that age is a trainee in the most basic ways; he is inexperienced, might be irresponsible, and needs education and supervision. Expectations should be higher for an adult in the same job category, as well as responsibilities and pay.
And here’s where I get partisan, deep in a lengthy footnote: I don’t accept any rationale for paying an adult less than the living wage to support him or herself, in any job. Does that mean that fast food workers should be paid $15/hour? In some areas, probably. But other employees who earn less than a living wage should be brought up to a fair minimum too, whether they are retail workers, miners, or adjunct professors. Some people who oppose a higher minimum wage kvetch that it will be a disincentive to ambition, thinking of their early days, like mine, where they moved up to better and better jobs. They may not understand that the tier of manufacturing and general labor jobs that paid a decent wage to hard working people without college degrees has evaporated. They may not understand that many employers are requiring four-year degrees or higher for jobs that don’t actually require specialized skills from those degrees. (I’ve looked at job listings lately and it’s disgusting. Project management jobs like I did very well — with only a high school diploma at the time — are now listing a Masters degree requirement and paying less than I earned 15 years ago.) They may not understand that some people are not ready or able to get a four-year degree.
I get it, really, I do. I’m philosophically libertarian. I buy into the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps way of thinking. It’s how I was raised and how I behaved. I wish everyone could and would do the same, but if wishes were horses, I’d win the Triple Crown every year. Changing my opinion on this came from reading a lot, thinking a lot, and coming to three core conclusions: there are many reasons why people take a different path than I did, education and employment have shifted dramatically, and I believe we’d be better off as a society if we were as accepting and supportive of our weakest members as we are celebratory about our strongest. (I deleted a large section explaining that, because I was giving my opinion far too much airtime.)
Yes, I understand that many small businesses are barely staying afloat while paying low wages. Perhaps there should be a small business exemption. Then workers could choose to seek jobs with larger companies where they would earn at least a living wage or smaller companies, which might offer benefits that appeal to young workers or the second employed adult in a household: flexibility, camaraderie, on-the-job training, child/pet-friendly working conditions, and so on. I’m no politician or economist, merely an opinionated voter.