I’m seeing increasing evidence that skilled labor and the people who produce it are growing in value to business owners. So even in an economy with a nearly 10% unemployment rate, why are these key employees in short supply? The answer is simple, it’s because our idea that the value of labor is rooted in an industrial revolution era concept of the assembly line. We tend to view all labor as a mindless task reserved to those who don’t have the mental capacity to do something else. In a six sigma, just-in-time manufacturing world, labor has become anything but a mindless task. We are increasing the need for both thinking and doing. I predict that this phenomenon will eventually change our mindset about higher education. To advance in the new economy, we’ll need intelligent workers who can make informed decisions in the manufacturing process and the employers who are willing to pay a premium to get workers that can both think and do.
In a July 2010 article in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/02/business/economy/02manufacturing.html, there were some amazing facts that support this thesis. According to the author, manufacturers “are looking to hire people who can operate sophisticated computerized machinery, follow complex blueprints and demonstrate higher math proficiency than was previously required of the typical assembly line worker.” To make the point, the author used an example from Ben Venue Laboratories in Cleveland, Ohio. In a quest to fill100 positions, the company reviewed 3600 applications, and still, they were able to hire only 47 skilled workers for jobs paying $13 to $15 per hour. Ben Venue has resorted to recruiting from the ranks of office workers. In one case, there was a 32 year old army veteran who was laid-off from the filing room at a law firm. He spent four months learning how to operate a very sophisticated freeze dryer, known in the industry as a Lyophilizer. As evidence that he likes his new job better than the old one he offered, “I like jobs that are more hands-on, as opposed to watching paperwork all day.”
If that is not enough for you, then consider the fact the testimony given by Mike Rowe of The Discovery Chanel’s Dirty Jobs when he appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on May 11, 2011 (more here – http://dsc.discovery.com/fansites/dirtyjobs/mike-rowe-senate-testimony.html).
“In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.”
To be successful as a society we’re going to have to raise our expectations for the level of education and the type of training these workers need. We’d probably also do well to re-consider long-held social attitudes about factory work. To successfully design these workplaces, as architects we need to learn more about the nature of this work.