I’ve lived most of my life in the Rust Belt. Growing up I regularly heard adults lament the decline of our once thriving community. Many openly pined for the way things were. Others simply cursed the Mexicans and Chinese for “stealing” our jobs. Blame varied– unions, politicians, free trade, immigrants, government regulations, and the machines all had their detractors. The only unifying position was that our kids needed to get an education so they could escape the crushing poverty that our economic collapse had foisted on the region.
Recently this notion has begun to shift. People in small Rust Belt cities like my hometown of Lima, Ohio are turning away from the notion that higher education provides a path forward to prosperity and success and are promoting the narrative that moving from high school into the manufacturing sector is the way forward for both our young people and the community. The theory is that creating a pipeline of young people who are eager, willing, and able to work in manufacturing will bring more manufacturing back to the region.
This is incredibly stupid, which makes it a perfect fit for the Lima area mindset. The one thing the Lima area (and Rust Belt in general) does not lack is an unskilled workforce. There are plenty of people– young and middle-aged– who would love to move from their poorly paid service jobs (or unemployment) and into decent paying manufacturing jobs. Flooding the market with more manufacturing workers will depress the already pathetic salaries and allow companies to churn through employees more quickly. I’ve seen this churn first-hand as a consultant for several large manufacturing and distributing plants who depended on immigrant labor in east Columbus communities. If you have a nearly endless supply of no/low skill labor you can work them extremely hard for very short periods of time before replacing them with another crop of workers. When people are cheap and you put few resources into them they become utterly replaceable. This approach will not bring a single new job to the region. It will simply strip local workers of whatever sliver of leverage they still held.
As you may have noticed, our over-abundance of workers and a favorable attitude towards manufacturing work has yet to compel companies to come rushing to move back into our region. For the cost conscious owner, it is hard to beat the anti-labor, anti-environment, pro-business climate of the south (or foreign markets). So you are left fighting over more discerning companies, for whom the bottom line is about more than short-term profits. Instead of moving to places like Lima that have a plethora of unskilled laborers and little else, they settle down in places where they can find both the unskilled labor force for their floor positions and the college educated management and professional staff they seek. They come to cities with good infrastructure and transportation options. They choose communities where their executives and management have access to world-class education, healthcare, international travel, arts, food, sports, finance, and government– perks that help attract and maintain the best talent. They choose places like Columbus and Indianapolis, not Lima.
If I only saw this rhetoric from my friends and family on social media back home I would probably let it slide. I get why my cousins working at Honda or Dana might be pro-manufacturing (not that I have ever read or heard something like that from them– they generally address them as j-o-b’s). People should be proud of their work. We build a lot of great things back home. The people of the Rust Belt work hard and they deserve our respect. But when leaders of the business community, schools, and media back home start promoting this narrative someone needs to call bullshit on it. And I call major bullshit on the Lima News March 20, 2016, article “Students learn appeal of manufacturing jobs.”
I get that writing for a small, local publication is tough work and I have no idea what the author Craig Kelly’s level of editorial control over the story is. My ire here is aimed directly at Civitas Media and the Lima News. It is one thing to write a puff piece on student field trips that seek to help non-college bound students find employment. It is another to publish uncritically a propaganda piece on the positive effects of the joint effort between local schools and an “employer-centric and employer-focused” organization like LimaLink. The people of northwest Ohio deserve better news coverage than this.
LimaLink’s explicit goal in fostering connections with local schools is to “connect employers with available and upcoming talent” and to “better align state programs, education and training curricula and other resources serving employers and jobseekers.” Publishing a story that lauds this process as helpful and positive for both students/jobseekers and the local economy shows just how little the Lima News cares about safeguarding the public from corruption or promoting the common good. Businesses using schools as recruiting platforms should be an outrage to the public. This is not part of the mission or goals of our educational institutions. Nor should it be.
Take this disingenuous quote:
“The site visit program was put in place as a result of MakerFest,” Link Lima program administrator Tracy Hollar said. “What the program was put in place for was to give kids in our local schools an opportunity to make them aware of the manufacturing in our community, knowing that our manufacturing companies like to keep people who are from Lima, rather than lose them to other communities. So the hope was that the students could go and see the environments and know what Allen County has to offer, so they can stay here.”
Because of the perception among youth that a four-year college degree is needed to ensure a quality, well-paying career down the road, the manufacturing sector can be at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting quality candidates, because many entry-level positions only require a high school diploma. However, Hollar is hoping to take that perceived negative and turn it into a positive, letting high school students know that there are opportunities for well-paying careers with avenues for further training and education available locally the minute they receive their diploma.
This is crap. For one, there is not a soul in Lima who is unaware that low-paying jobs in manufacturing exist– it is one of the major sources of employment in the region. Everyone has a parent, relative, or friend who works in one of the local plants. Beyond that, entry-level jobs in manufacturing are not a ticket to well-paying careers. They are a one-way ticket to being stuck in a low-paying, unfulfilling job. They are there for the person who needs work and lacks skills or training to do something more professional like nursing, plumbing, teaching, or electrical work. Entry-level manufacturing jobs are not to be aspired to. They are to be taken when there are no better choices. Promoting them as a solid alternative to pursuing a four-year college degree (while ignoring trade schools and two-year degree programs as well), is too absurd to be taken seriously. By nearly every measure and metric you have a better chance at a well-paying career if you graduate from a respected four-year institution. And your avenue for advancement is almost wholly dependent on it.
I know this narrative that “college is not for everyone” has become popular in conservative areas. It resonates with uneducated people in rural areas like Lima who resent college educated ex-pats who escaped, lament the expensive “failures” of those who return home and struggle to find work, and carpetbaggers who swoop in and gobble up the management positions. It is also popular with the urban elites who scoff at the idea that the children of working-class and poor families might have the intelligence, skills, and temperament to succeed in their world. Understand that when they say college is not for everyone, they mean people like you, Lima residents. No one at Goldman-Sachs is telling their child that he or she should pursue an entry-level job at MetoKote. Nor were any of the myriad of uninspired, spoiled, dullards I met at Miami University guided by their parents to leave school and move back home to seek an exciting career at Spallinger Millwright. Instead, some of these idiots are now lawyers, consultants, financial analysts, and veterinarians. Yet the people of Lima should willingly embrace shooting low?
Be better than this, Lima. Demand more honesty and transparency from your media and schools. Believe that your children are worth more and capable of more than this. Encourage them to think and grow, not settle and conform. Stop trying to relive the glory days that never were and start thinking about creating a real path forward.