Education Funding Opinion

Rust Belt Workers Don’t Want to Hear About Education and Retraining

By Marc Tucker — December 15, 2016 6 min read
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The messages can't be about 'job retraining.' These folks have heard it a million times and, frankly, they think it's complete and total bulls**t," he continued. "Talk about policies that will incentivize companies to repatriate manufacturing jobs. Talk about infrastructure ... The workers we're talking about don't want to run computers; they want to run back hoes, dig ditches (and) sling concrete block. ... Somewhere along the line we forgot that not everyone wants to be white collar." David Betras, Chairman of the Mahoning County, Ohio (Youngstown area) Democratic party, in a post-mortem on the election, talking about what he said to Hillary Clinton during the campaign, a message he said she ignored. Quoted from the Daily 202 column by James Hohman in the November 22, 2016 Washington Post.

Well, there you have it. Regular readers of my blog will remember me saying that it is not just about the money. The coal miners don’t want to come down out of the mountains into the cities. Their dads were coal miners and their grandfathers and their grandfathers’ fathers before them. And it is not just about how they make their living. It is also about a culture that defines their sense of self.

Those jobs did not need much schooling. Many of the kids who did really well in school did not really fit in or just couldn’t find jobs. So they left the area. They might come back for the holidays to see their families, but they left home to find jobs in the new economy. My regular readers will also recall me saying that those jobs are not coming back. If you have forgotten what I said about why they are not coming back, look here.

So what is a politician to do? Both candidates in this election promised to spend a ton of tax money on new infrastructure that will provide exactly the kind of jobs that David Betras was talking about: running backhoes, digging ditches, slinging concrete block. Building new airports, roads and bridges will also require a lot of steel girders, pipe and culverts. Glass walls will be needed and steel guard rails. And when all the old bridges are replaced and the new airports built and the work is done, it will be all over. And we will be right back where we are now; the infrastructure program will only delay the inevitable for a small part of our workforce.

But these folks, according to Betras, don’t want to want to run computers. They don’t want to be retrained. They don’t want to give up their way of life. They don’t want to leave the land their family has lived on for generations. To the extent that Betras was talking about the white working class, the data bears him out. Forty-five percent think that life would be better if they had a four-year degree; but 51 percent think that life would be about the same.

The educated in the United States are investing unprecedented sums to get the most education they can get for themselves and their children, because they know that doing so will make an ever-growing difference in their lives. But many of those with much less education don’t want to hear it. So, during the presidential election, neither candidate told these voters that their jobs were never coming back, much less why that is so. No one told them that their whole way of life would have to change if they wanted a decent way of life for themselves and their children.

The last time a seismic shift in the makeup of jobs in the economy happened on this scale was in the years between the first and second world wars. That was when the old family farms collapsed and modern high-tech industrial farming came in. The process was memorialized in John Steinbecks’ Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange’s haunting pictures of that era. The Great Depression did not start in 1929. It started earlier, in the aftermath of World War I. American farmers had greatly expanded production to meet the needs of people literally starving in Europe and elsewhere, where agriculture had been destroyed. As those countries’ agricultural capacity came back on line, prices collapsed for the output of American farms and the stage was set for the financial collapse that extended from the farm to the other sectors of the U.S. economy.

No one had to explain to the American farmer that the old days were over and never coming back. Dustbowl economics were explanation enough. The Okies left their withered fields for the California cities. Their sons and daughters became airplane mechanics and built sound stages in Hollywood. Giant corporations bought acres of forlorn farmland for a song and created vastly more efficient farms based on the latest research. Millions of African-American sharecroppers headed to the northern cities in the Great Migration. The sons and daughters of many midwestern farmers who did not head west found that they could not make it on the family farm either, so they got part-time jobs in nearby cities or left altogether for the big cities where all kinds of opportunities opened up. Both the farmers who stayed on the land and their sons and daughters who moved to the cities ended up getting much more education and training than their parents had ever had.

I am willing to bet that if we had asked those farmers what they wanted for themselves as the storm clouds gathered over their family farms in the 1920s and 30s, they would have said, “I love it here. I love the big sky and the bird song and the smell of the winter wheat and the feel of the soft earth in my hands and the sight of the corn shoots coming up in the spring rain. I love my church and my friends and our way of life. You bet I’d like to have electricity here so we wouldn’t have to haul water from the well every day and do our wash by hand. But I’m not leaving. The big city is a cesspool. You say you want to train me for the kinds of desk jobs that people do there? Are you crazy?

But the world changed. And they did leave for the city. And they did get more education and training. And they did get desk jobs.

Something like this happened in Sweden in the 1970s. Several industries in which Sweden had had a global leadership position for a long time—in some cases centuries—had virtually disappeared from Sweden, leaving many Swedish workers in bad shape. Shipbuilding is a good example. The Swedes hired Boston Consulting Group to advise the government on how to get these jobs back. BCG found out that the Swedish shipbuilders had invested in state-of-the-art equipment to make sure that they would remain competitive. But, despite that investment, they lost the business to other countries like South Korea anyway. BCG told the government that there was no way to get the shipbuilding business back. Though the top global competitors would have to use state-of-the-art equipment, that equipment could be run by relatively low-skill workers. South Korea had bought the same equipment that the Swedish firms had bought, but their workers were happy to work for much lower wages.

BCG told the government that it should stop bailing out the shipbuilding industry and others like it in which Sweden would never again be competitive. Instead, it should find ways to support Swedish firms that were finding markets in which they could succeed by using advanced manufacturing technologies that required highly skilled, not low-skilled, workers; companies that were also investing heavily in the research and development that would enable them to be one step ahead of the competition technologically.

But, BCG told the government that none of this was likely to work in the face of the demands of shipyard workers that the government bring the old jobs back, so they advised the government to literally bulldoze the shipyards first, then offer the land formerly occupied by the shipyards to the new high technology/high skill companies on which the future of Sweden would depend, and, finally, bring job counselors and job training organizations from all over the country to the former shipyard sites to counsel and train the former shipyard workers. The riveters were retrained as robot operators and the teetering Swedish economy got a new lease on life.

So what, now, is political leadership here in the United States? We can easily say what it is not. It is not promising to get the old jobs back. That won’t happen. It is explaining why no one can bring the old jobs back—that is, by figuratively bulldozing the old shipyards—and then laying out what the people who used to do them will have to do to earn a good living in an increasingly automated, global economy. That is what no political leader has yet done. Only then will it be both necessary and possible to put together the kind of massive education and retraining program the country really needs.

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