Cliff Claven Gets It Wrong On The American Workforce

A common lament these days is that America “doesn’t build anything anymore”. John Ratzenberger takes that thought and expands upon it at Big Hollywood, suggesting that not only do we not build anything, we have nobody to do the building. Unfortunately for John, he’s made enough logical errors, irrelevant points, and misdiagnoses of the problem that he’s due for a fisking.

When America gave up its position as the producer-in-chief and became the consumer-in-chief, “essential skilled workers” became dirty words in our lexicon.

Gave up our position? Manufacturing output isn’t declining. As Don Boudreaux points out, it’s 80% higher than 1979 and 351% higher than 1955. Manufacturing employment might be declining, but value produced is rising. This, of course, reflects the fact that true wealth gains come not from output growth, but from productivity growth. America is much more productive relative to its labor needs than it has ever been.

The cultural shift is fast producing an “industrial tsunami” that threatens our economy and way of life. Ironically enough, we’re facing a crisis shortage of skilled workers at a time of dramatically high unemployment.

This may be true. A shortage of skilled workers is undoubtedly a bad thing. However, the free market is notoriously effective at solving shortages. Shortages are reflected by high compensation, and high compensation draws greater supply. If we have a persistent shortage, however, one would have to look at structural impediments to supply.

We must re-connect this disconnect or face the consequences.

Here is where he starts to both assign blame (which is correct) and attempt to generate a solution (which is incorrect) by using the ever-present “we”. It becomes apparent shortly that he is not willing to let the free market solve this problem, he prefers top-down command and control. What he fails to recognize is that top-down command and control got us into this mess in the first place, and thus cannot be trusted long-term to get us out of it.

America works when Americans are working.

Okay, so here’s a mindless platitude. What happened, need to build word count?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 25 percent of the working population will reach retirement age by 2012, resulting in a potential shortage of nearly 10 million skilled workers. This heightens the price our nation is paying for dismantling so many in-school vocational training programs during the past few decades.

Aha! Dismantling in-school vocational programs. Sounds like we already tried putting the government in charge of supplying the training needed for our workforce, and they followed the current president’s adage that “college is for EVERYONE” rather than understand that different people better fit different work tracks and goals.

The cultural shift he might be speaking about earlier is the shift between those who do physical work with their hands out in the world, and those who do intellectual work with their brains in air-conditioned offices. Those in the latter group often (mistakenly) assume that there’s no brain necessary for those in the former group, while those in the former group often (mistakenly) think those in the latter are mere parasites and produce no “real” wealth. The problem is that we’ve put the air-conditioned-office type in charge of our government, and thus they’ve been trying to keep students from the horrors of tradesmen work for a few decades now.

Is there any wonder that, after decades of denigrating the skilled trades, and dismantling one of the routes into those trades (public school vocational training), it’s getting hard to fill the positions today?

The current shortage already sharply reduces the growth of U.S. gross domestic product, contributing to our overall economic problem. America’s infrastructure is falling apart before our eyes. Municipal water and sewer systems are failing, and more bridges are unsafe to cross. Yet the nationwide shortfall of more than 500,000 welders is causing already-funded repair projects to be canceled or delayed.

Why is infrastructure falling apart before our eyes? Because government has spent decades using transportation funding bills on pork and new infrastructure. Every politician loves to create a new “Robert Byrd Memorial Bridge”, but none of them want to spend the money to perform upkeep on the “Spiro Agnew Drainage Canal”. We’ve neglected infrastructure for too long, and now that we’ve decided to fund some necessary projects, we’re limited by the lag time of new labor supply.

However, there’s a short-term solution! Labor is mobile, and if we REALLY need welders, I’m sure there are at least a few hundred thousand scattered amongst the world’s population of 6 billion that are both qualified and willing to come here and take those jobs. While I think it would be nice to give those jobs to Americans, it’s just not going to happen in the short term. But who stands in the way of allowing skilled immigrants to come here and do work that desperately needs to be done? If you answered government, John, you’re learning!

Essential skilled workers are heroes. Without them, America grinds to a halt. But there are national security implications to this skilled worker gap, too. The ongoing demand for U.S.-manufactured military parts and hardware — from boots to mother boards — require domestic manufacturing operations. Even now, critical manufacturing has been moved off-shore as a stop-gap measure.

We simply can’t “outsource” our national defense!

Oh, lord, did he really just go there? Red flag, folks, when someone’s position is so weak that they must run straight to the “you need to do what I say for NATIONAL SECURITY!”, you know he’s in trouble.

Critical manjufacturing (at least of motherboards) hasn’t been moved offshore as a “stop-gap” measure. It’s been moved offshore as part of the military’s wide push to COTS procurement methods. Everything for the military used to be one-off custom products. They were expensive, because from design to manufacturing, there were no economies of scale to take advantage of. Typically, in the military, the volumes just aren’t there. Vendors of sub-assembly components often aren’t salivating at the thought of getting an order to design and supply custom motherboards for, say, 200 aircraft over 5 years. It’s just not worth it unless the price is astronomical. Thus, for some products, there are already multiple independent vendors producing the needed product in much higher volume for commercial applications, and they can be used in military applications at much lower cost. Standard practice is to have multiple independent sources for every component for which it is physically possible, to lessen the risk of supply chain shocks if — for example — a factory gets bombed.

Perhaps Ratzenberger wants to make the argument that America should go back to one-off custom products for military use, at much higher cost to everyone involved (especially the taxpayer). If he’s making that argument on the grounds that it will put more people to work, he’s right. (So will paying them to dig and fill holes). But if he’s trying to make that argument on economic grounds that it will increase America’s wealth, he’s economically illiterate.

Along with Emmy Award-winning producer Craig Haffner and the Foundation for Fair Civil Justice, I am currently in pre-production with a new documentary, “Industrial Tsunami,” whose purpose is to wake up Americans to the shortage of skilled workers that threatens the existence of companies and entire industries.

I won’t disagree that we may be short on skilled workers. Alerting America to this fact is not a bad idea. I suspect, though, that his prescriptions for a fix will be quite different than mine.

We must develop short- and long-range solutions to this crisis, starting with expanding vocational training opportunities and restoring dignity and pride in America’s skilled workers.

Short-term: Liberalize immigration. We’ve got jobs today, and foreigners today have skills. What’s the problem?

Long-term: Privatize education (whether liberally voucher-based or full privatization). All done. Problem solved!

Okay, need more explanation? First, start with the fact that public education has made a high school diploma nothing more than a certification of breathing and a pulse. We’ve forced a college education to be the “starting point” of life by making it, at the very least, a certification of mild sentience, which is what a high school diploma used to be. Thus, employers have started demanding college degrees for jobs which don’t come close to requiring that someone finished a 4-year major in “Communications”. Break the “college is for EVERYONE” mindset by actually making high school valuable again, which will likely only occur through competition and privatization.

Second, once education is privatized, you cease to let government bureaucrats, who need a Master’s Degree to wipe their butts, to decide what’s important for success in the world. You’ll actually start to see private schools return to offering vocational training, because if there’s truly a market demand for skilled tradesman, they’d be stupid not to offer those programs. Yes, I am making the claim that the reason for the lack of these programs today is stupidity, but given that we put the government in charge of the decision, that should surprise no one.

Once you break the government impediment to seeing the skilled trades as honorable work (furthered by their destruction of a high school diploma’s worth and their active effort to steer EVERY child to a 4-year college degree), the “dignity and pride” of the skilled trades will follow.

We will explore the negative media images of skilled workers, as well as current initiatives at the national and local levels to address this crisis.

Is “getting the hell out of the way” an initiative at any level? No? Didn’t think so.

Equally important, we will promote the concept that essential skilled work is noble, is useful and creates the independent mindset and self-confidence in the individual that has resonated throughout our nation’s history — and can rebuild America with a solid foundation once again.

In this, I can only hope you’re successful. Since you’re opposed by pretty much everyone from the President (a walking college degree who’s never generated value either with his hands or his intellect) to academia (including the vast masses of teachers who went to college to earn an “education” degree rather than become experts in a subject matter and then add some teaching skills) to most of our media (themselves rationalizing wasting 4 years on J-school when they’re being outflanked by pajama-clad bloggers), I’m a bit worried that your methods aren’t going to work out as well as you hope.

  • Procopius

    On education I’m 100% on board with you. On immigration, I’m full-on w t f.

  • Brad Warbiany


    If you’re thinking “WTF” on immigration, it’s likely that we’ve got a bridge too far in our opinion there – as a general rule.

    However, in *this* case I’d say that trying to attract skilled tradesmen if we have a shortage is more similar to our H-1B visa program than it is to having unskilled foreign labor cleaning houses, busing tables, doing yardwork, or picking vegetables.

    Even if you disagree that we should allow the unskilled labor from Mexico to come here, attracting skilled tradesmen, which will be well-paid and not “welfare sponges”, is defensible.

  • Procopius

    It may be defensible in a billboard sense, but the visa program has been 110% full steam for more than a decade now. So if there -is- a legitimate argument about a lack of skilled labor, then the logical conclusion is that the answer is not “bring more smart foreigners in.”

    -Note that is not the same as “keep all foreigners out.”

  • cjs

    Given that most would see privatization as a bit too extreme and risky, how about just de-federalization? The more the feds have been involved in education the worst it has become. They are now factories to make money for standardized testing companies. I doubt any of these companies produce a welding standardized test.

    Local communities are the best candidates for determining how their school should be run and what they should teach.

  • cjs

    Personally I’ve never really seen why I should care about immigration. It seems that the only reason I should be concerned about it is because they have the potential to consume welfare, and there the solution would seem to be welfare reform not immigration reform. If the problem is that they are getting paid less, then there’s probably some tax evasion going on. This seems to me similar to the drug “problem”. Drugs have residual problems such as crime, but crime is already illegal, so why make drugs illegal simply because they might make you do something illegal.

  • Stephen Littau

    cjs, there already are standardized tests for welding. The American Welding Society (AWS) – a non-profit organization – certifies welders and welding inspectors for various types of welds (as materials and techniques vary in difficulty and application) .

    Even if these certifications were not required (I’m not entirley sure they are), a non-certified welder would be very hard pressed to find employment as few owners/contractors/engineers who would be willing to take on the liability that comes with using non-certified welders.

    And compared with a most degree and even most vocational training, AWS certification is realitivley inexpensive and much more practical.

  • cjs

    That wasn’t my point. My point is that due to federal actions such as No Child Left Behind, high school education is now more and more structured around a set of fed approved standardized tests. Money is given out based on how schools do on those standardized tests. So increasingly schools are teaching to the test – and any courses which do not pertain directly to the standardized tests are neglected. My comment about welding standardized tests wasn’t in regard specifically to industry testing (I work in the tech field, testing and certification is common and its a good thing), but with the way that federal focus on a few specific areas have caused schools to neglect any other areas.

    From the wikipedia article on NCLB:

    Some local schools are only funding instruction for core subjects or for remedial special education. NCLB puts pressure on schools to guarantee that nearly all students will meet the minimum skill levels (set by each state) in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but requires nothing beyond these minimums. Programs that are not essential to achieving the mandated minimum skills are neglected or canceled by those districts.

    NCLB’s main focus from the time it was implemented has been skills in reading, writing and mathematics, areas where the United States feels it must succeed in order to be competitive in the current global market. However, as the years have passed since it went into effect in 2002, an alarming trend has emerged: the detrimental effect this law has had on subject areas and classes which are not held accountable, or are testable, by the NCLB mandate.

    As Tina Beveridge states in one article; “The long-term effects of NCLB are not yet evident, but the short-term effects have been detrimental to all non tested subjects, especially those courses that are typically considered electives.” She goes on to state that in the current time of budget crisis, almost all of the funding that schools receive from the government stemming from NCLB are now allocated to only the testable subjects as well as the tests themselves.

  • Stephen Littau


    Thanks for the clarification. I thought your point was that if too many things are privatized, there would be no standards for such things as welding. The point I was trying to make is that there are private professional standards organizations (Underwriters Laboratories as another example I’m sure you are familiar with) which keep industry standards high with little to no government intervention.

    It seems that we are on the same page. Your comments on NCLB are also spot-on.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy

    Random story concerning welding certificates.

    A few years ago the SO’s neurologist went to the local trade college to learn welding (he’s one of those people who never stop learning, ‘ya know). When he finished the course, passed the proficiency exam and go the certificate, he had if framed by the same people who’d done his medical degrees and licenses and hung it on the wall of his office with all his other parchment.

    My kind of person.

  • Sterling Spencer

    I agree with Cliff Claven (John Ratzenberger) . an example of which our newest but not necessarily the best F 35 strike fighter of which a tremendous amount of the parts come from outsourcing. as far as the welders all over the world, we can’t support the whole world and need US welders. a lot of our steel mills are shutdown and manufacturing of production parts are done overseas Nails are made overseas in China Romania and other such place. Clothing is made in places like Vietnam, Honduras, China and Indonesia, and for crying out loud American flags are imported from China. While all this is happening the majority in our area ‘s job is to collect a welfare check and produce more mouths to feed and get a bigger check. Some place don’t abide by two years and you are off welfare and this is done on purpose so the town government can get so called free money(grants) and there is such thing. we need training in high schools in the vocational trades to help alleviate this problem and all the outsourced jobs need to be returned to the US. clothing manufacturing , furniture making and trades such as this can make quite a decent living (without college, and massive school loan debts) and should be done by legal Americans before importing foreign labor and outsourcing the job. this also includes IT job where if you call them you have to have a translator to understand them.