Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Skills’

Trashing experience and skill is just one more weapon in the war on workers

Monday, October 1st, 2012

The role of training and experience was glaringly obvious in the National Football League’s lockout of its longtime officials. Glaringly obvious as in, the scabs the NFL brought in to replace the experienced referees were first a national laughingstock and then even more widely reviled for their errors on the field. It turns out not just anyone can officiate a professional football game. But what about other kinds of workers?

We’re told that part of the American character is to work hard and take pride in it, and that’s reflected in what we see around us. It’s not just people whose work results in big paychecks or offers the chance to climb the career ladder quickly or get public recognition, it’s a value as alive among low-wage workers as among the highest-paid. But something you hear a lot less about than the value of hard work is the value of skill. This is weird, because presumably if you’re working hard, one of the things you’re working at is getting good at what you do. If you’re taking pride in your hard work, it’s not just pride in how tired you are at the end of the day but at how well you did things, how accurate or efficient you were, how you got something right that not everyone would have gotten right.

But when there’s a labor dispute, or when Republicans are trying to undermine how voters think about other workers to set the stage for taking away pensions or collective bargaining rights, suddenly, to hear them talk, you’d never know that this was a nation that values hard work, because in those moments we’re told it’s not that hard, any idiot could do this job. It’s not that hard to referee a professional football game, so call up the guys who washed out of the Lingerie Football League. Experience is overrated for teachers, so throw people into the classroom after a few weeks’ training, they’ll do fine. More than fine! The youth and energy of the barely trained new teacher will be better than the experience of that useless old teacher. Suddenly, the drive to denigrate the workers becomes so strong that the CEO or the governor asks us, expects us, to forget the years of work that these workers have put into learning their jobs, learning how to teach or to run a snowplow or a cash register.

As the AP’s Paul J. Weber writes, “Professing expertise can also bring on suspicions of elitism and scratch an itch to knock someone down a peg”—an itch that the Roger Goodells and Scott Walkers and Mitt Romneys of the world and the generations of union-busters and racers-to-the-bottom who laid the groundwork for them will hasten to throw poison ivy onto. Hell, if you’re not itching, they’ll sneak up behind you with the poison ivy. But as Weber details, it’s not just on the football field that experience and the commitment that comes from doing a job for years matter.

— In Houston, Adrianna Vasquez makes $8.60 an hour doing what she knows people think is the world’s most replaceable job: She’s a janitor. When the 37-year-old returned in August to resume cleaning the 100 toilets on 10 floors in a downtown Chase Bank tower after a citywide janitor strike that won a 12 percent raise, Vasquez said the bathrooms cleaned by replacement crews looked like stalls in a seedy bar. “I just wanted to cry when I saw it,” she said.

— In New York, Consolidated Edison locked out 8,000 workers in July and brought in replacements from other states to work power lines and operate the grid. It ended just as severe storms hit and threatened power outages. “Not enough people that knew what they were doing,” said John Melia, a spokesman for the Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers Union of America.

Most people are willing to concede that it’s better if you have some training and experience before working with power lines, but cleaning toilets? There’s a job that gets basically no respect. But even aside from the toilet-related unpleasantness, it takes physical stamina and attention to detail. Yet among Republican politicians and at Republican think tanks, to say nothing of at big corporations trying to squeeze every last dollar of profit out of their workers to maximize that CEO bonus, the fact that janitors working for the government make a living wage and get benefits is an outrage.

Another piece of the 1 percent’s disrespect for the work of the 99 percent is disrespect for the very real training it involves. At the same time Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was trying to impose harsh new evaluation systems on his city’s teachers, for instance, the teachers had to fight for training so that they would be able to get better at what they do. But training is something workers often fight for, and it’s something that in many industries sets union workers apart—not their work ethic or their drive, but the fact that their unions have been able to bargain for training in the workplace or have put money into union-run training programs. The AFL-CIO’s Alison Omens details just a few of the union training and safety programs you might find:

Remember Captain Sully and “Miracle on the Hudson?” He was a huge safety advocate through his union, serving as the Air Line Pilots (ALPA) representative during a National Transportation Safety Board investigation and as a local air safety chairman.

How about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center? The people who are thousands of feet in the air are union members, as well as veterans. The AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department’s (BCTD‘s) training program Helmets to Hardhats works across the country to train veterans for high-skill construction projects, including at the World Trade Center. [...]

The president of a Chicago-based construction company who works with union workers says this about his experience: “Here’s what [the union’s] training center means to me: We’re getting the highest caliber craftsmen in the business. It’s going toward productivity and attitude.”

But when those same workers who are, through their unions, bargaining for and investing in the best available training are in the way of corporate profit or a Republican governor looking to make his mark, they’re portrayed as greedy, lazy, corrupt, doing a job that anyone could do with a day’s notice and expecting to be able to feed their families and even go on vacation every couple years.

Forty years of the war on workers has led us to this deeply dysfunctional, contradictory place where workers and their labor are concerned. Hard work is great. If you’re not rich and you don’t work hard, brutally hard if your boss requires it, you’re a bad person who deserves poverty. If you’re not rich and you expect your hard work to be valued with pay or benefits those at the top don’t want to give, expect to see your work and experience and skill mocked as nothing. And if you’re at the top? Your wealth is justified by your hard work, supposed or real. About other people’s hard work, the only question is how cheap you can get it.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on September 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Alleged 'Skills Gap' Takes Spotlight Off Who's to Blame for Massive Jobs Shortage

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Roger BybeeLately, the usual stream of stories about America’s jobs crisis has been displaced by a story about the shortage of crucial skills among the jobless.

This new narrative—fed by new studies from corporate sources like Deloitte & Touche—has seemingly displaced information about the plight of the unemployed. Suddenly, stories about the unemployed—except for jobless college graduates who are carrying part of the country’s $1 trillion in outstanding student debt—have virtually disappeared from the mainstream media.

What’s happening to the growing numbers of “99-ers,” people whose unemployment benefits have expired? How are families and communities coping with a rising tide of mortgage foreclosures—that, as GOP presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann of all people reminded us—painfully force families from the security of their “nests”?

Worry not, a new hook for economic coverage has arrived. A major study on the perils posed by the “skill gap” to our economy warns:

American manufacturing companies cannot fill up to 600,000 skilled positions, even as unemployment numbers hover at historic levels, according to a survey released Monday from Deloitte & Touche and The Manufacturing Institute.

…Some companies are not bidding for projects because they lack skilled manpower to do the work, according to Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

It’s the “jobs paradox,” said WMC President and CEO Kurt Bauer.

“We have high unemployment, yet companies can’t find the skilled help they need,” he said.

Another report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce National Chamber Foundation and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce received prominent play in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as have a number of other recent stories on the predicted shortage of skilled workers looming soon in Wisconsin’s future:

The report also warns that the state’s workforce is aging, an ominous sign for a labor market that faces an ongoing shortage of skilled workers.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman quotes the CEO of Caterpillar about the dangers of inadequate education in what Friedman calls “The Age of Austerity”:

Doug Oberhelman, the C.E.O. of Caterpillar, which is based in Illinois, was quoted in Crain’s Chicago Business on Sept. 13 as saying: “We cannot find qualified hourly production people, and, for that matter, many technical, engineering service technicians, and even welders, and it is hurting our manufacturing base in the United States. The education system in the United States basically has failed them, and we have to retrain every person we hire.”

The highly influential Fareed Zakaria, columnist, TV host and “apostle of globalization…, who has long argued that free trade and globalization are win-win propositions and good for America, now argues that while globalization has been good for American companies, the way it has been operating has not been so good for American workers and job creation,”  notes former globalization enthusiast Clyde Prestowitz. Prestowitz goes on to point out:

Astoundingly, Zakaria says this is because the U.S. workforce is not well enough educated. He quotes Pimco bond fund founder Bill Gross as saying that: “Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s market place.”

One could easily conclude from these stories and accompanying headlines that a substantial part of America’s unemployment problem is caused by jobless workers’ individual failures to update their skills.

Further, the public schools and the unionized teachers—under attack not just from Republicans like Scott Walker, but also Education Secretary Arne Duncan (see here, and here) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (see here and here)—have been failing to properly provide 21st century skills to their students.

Perhaps far too much attention has been devoted to the government role in job creation and retention, when American CEOs need to demand more from their employees and from the U.S. educational system to solve the jobless problem over the long term, this narrative suggests.

But in reality, this whole “Education, Training, and Skills” narrative serves to divert attention from the massive shortage of jobs and Corporate America’s misdeeds to “failing” teachers and supposedly under-educated workers. Corporate America has failed to produce virtually any net gain in U.S. jobs since 1999; the period was the only decade when U.S. employment grew by less than 20 percent.

In short, the Education, Training and Skills “frame” on our economic problems plays several useful functions for the CEOs and the rest of the richest 1 percent. It takes the spotlight off CEOs’ decisions to wipe out decent-paying job opportunities. As Gordon Lafer writes in The Training Charade,

Workers are encouraged not to blame corporate profits, the export of jobs aboard, or eroding wage standards—that is, anything that they can fight—but rather to look inward for the source of their misfortune and the seeds of their resurrection.

It also distracts from a few other things:

THE PROBLEM IS MICROSCOPIC

With 15 million Americans officially unemployed (the number rises to about 25 million when you include the discouraged jobless and those involuntarily working part-time), the relative number of positions going unfilled is infinitesimal in comparison. Just 5 percent of all current manufacturing jobs are unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants.

Conceivably, a firm commitment by Corporate America and the federal government to maintaining and expanding America’s industrial base, accompanied by an equitable sharing of the massive productivity gains accruing almost solely to corporations, would make work in skilled manufacturing once again attractive. But as illustrated by the direction of leading corporations like General Electric, major firms seem less committed than ever to keeping their manufacturing production in the US. Moreover, leading figures in both political parties resist the notion of an “industrial policy” to foster U.S. manufacturing, as economist Jeff Faux has emphasized.

THE LIMITED VALUE OF TRAINING

When displaced workers successfully complete retraining programs, they are generally unable to find jobs comparable in pay and benefits to the ones they lost. “Out of a hundred laid-off workers,” says New York Times economics writer Louis Uchitelle in his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, “27 are making their old salary again, or more, and 73 are making less, or not working at all.”

COMPANIES DON’T WANT TO PAY FOR BETTER SCHOOLS

CEOs like Caterpillar’s Oberhelmer feel free to demand that our schools produce well-trained workers. However, corporations like Caterpillar and GE are unwilling to pay the taxes necessary to support quality education for all children. These and other corporations have skillfully avoided paying any federal taxes in some years, and paying minimal taxes in others.

Caterpillar’s Oberhelmer used a frequent corporate ploy in response to tax increases in Illinois. Despite massive increases in profits for the Peoria-based firm, he sent a letter to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn with a thinly-veiled threat to relocate the corporate headquarters because of a 2 percent tax increase for wealth executives.

Without corporations paying their fair share of taxes, how can they expect a top-notch workforce?

Let us be clear: more education, training, and skills for the unemployed will not produce job opportunities when Corporate America is unwilling to invest in new U.S. jobs, despite the deceptive arguments presented by corporations and allies like Friedman and Zakaria. Nor will public education be able to improve for the children of poor and working-class children when corporations like General Electric and Caterpillar use blackmail threats of relocation to reduce their taxes.

Lafer offers a cold splash of reality on the whole Education, Skills, and Training charade:

Whatever the problem, it seems job training is the answer. The only trouble is, it doesn’t work, and the government knows it. . . . Indeed, in studying more than 40 years of job training policy, I have not seen one program that, on average, enabled its participants to earn their way out of poverty.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications and websites, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. Bybee edited The Racine Labor weekly newspaper for 14 years in his hometown of Racine, Wis., where his grandfathers and father were socialist and labor activists. His website can be found here, and his e-mail address is [email protected]

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