Over and over again, I hear people say that there is no manufacturing in America, that we've shipped it all elesewhere. That idea is simply not true. We still have plenty of manufacturing on our shores--depending on how you define terms, we're either first or second in the world for manufacturing (a fact I got from this NPR story; go here to read/listen).
Of course, a lot of those manufacturing jobs are done by machines. And many of the jobs done by humans don't have the middle-class level of pay that they would have had in, say, 1962. To understand that fully, I read a fabulous article in The Atlantic (written by the same person who reported similar information for the NPR story): "Throughout much of the 20th century, simultaneous technological improvements in both agriculture and industry happened to create conditions that were favorable for people with less skill. The development of mass production allowed low-skilled farmers to move to the city, get a job in a factory, and produce remarkably high output. Typically, these workers made more money than they ever had on the farm, and eventually, some of their children were able to get enough education to find less-dreary work. In that period of dramatic change, it was the highly skilled craftsperson who was more likely to suffer a permanent loss of wealth. Economists speak of the middle part of the 20th century as the 'Great Compression,' the time when the income of the unskilled came closest to the income of the skilled."
We are no longer in a time of great economic compression. Some manufacturing jobs pay workers far more than a worker in 1962 could have ever dreamed of making. But most do not.
The article does a great job exploring the decisions that corporate people make on a day by day basis as they decide what to manufacture in the U.S. and what to make in other countries. The article also does a great job in exploring what separates a low-skill and high-skill worker in manufacturing. And it's all highly readable and understandable, something I don't often find in articles which explore manufacturing; usually I'm either weighed down by the tedium of economic theory or by the angry political viewpoint of one side or another, or by the shallowness of the article. Happily, this piece is an exception. If you read only one piece of writing on manufacturing and the future of American jobs, turn to this one.
I've been thinking about U.S. jobs, about whether or not there are careers that we can count on anymore. I used to think we could count on educational jobs, but even first grade teachers are being laid off where I live. I think of caring for the old as an expanding industry, as the baby boomers age. But if the last 30 years should teach us anything, it's that no industry is safe. You can wake up any morning to find your industry has shifted right out from under you.
It's enough to make a girl cry. I loved Kristen McHenry's post about crying at work: "To cry, to well up, to lament, blubber, keen, or wail--all are unforgivable. Crying, one shows an unseemly level of engagement, a lack of ability to maintain objectivity and distance; one shows weakness, femininity and its inherent manipulations, that are you easily broken, that you are sickly in hue, a wreck, battered, without backbone, pallid and brittle and girly and irrational." It's a wonderful post, a prose poem that explores terrain we've all likely experienced.
In my current position, I have to be careful not to cry. I'm an administrator in a college that doesn't have as many students as we once did. If people see me crying, they'll assume the news is bad and that the news has to do with them. Not good.
When my grandmother lay dying, I called my sister while I was at the office and quickly dissolved into tears. I remember saying, "I'm glad I have an eye infection right now. It explains why my eyes are red and puffy when I see people after this conversation."
Yes, most of our workplaces give us many reasons to cry. There are many people and circumstances designed to get one's goat. I loved Kathleen Kirk's recent post about goats, goatherds, and goat cheese: "Bob was reminding us at church yesterday of the vigilance it takes to remain nonviolent in life, down to not letting someone 'get our goat'--that is, not letting someone provoke us into being cranky and irritable in our own actions and speech.
Bob told about a job interview, and a boss's warning about a certain manager:
'This guy seems to know how to get a person's goat,' he explained.
'No worries.' I countered, 'I’ll leave my goat at home.'”
I've been working at leaving my goat at home! Some weeks are more of a challenge than others. Some weeks, I dream of running away and starting a goat farm and selling goat cheese at some farmer's market somewhere.
My spouse would remind me that goats are mean and viciously destructive and that we should raise something else. Tropical fruits, perhaps. On our great Southeast funeral trip, we talked about raising buffalo. Could they survive in a central Florida ranch? Surely summers on the Great Plains are as hot as summers here--hotter, even. Do buffalo need a cold season?
I try to remind myself that every job has its annoyances. Every job involves a fair amount of tedium, since humans can't run on high levels of adrenaline very long and stay alive. Dave Bonta has a great post on tedium where he explores how our lives have changed since the Industrial Revolution:
"Those elders who had no choice but to knit if they wanted to stay warm in the winter might think today’s hobbyist knitters slightly mad, unless back in the day they happened to be of a creative bent. But I’m told that when an Amish man draws up a cost/benefit analysis of a project, the labor required to complete it will be listed as a benefit rather than a cost.
I imagine it was only after the Industrial Revolution that tedium became a nearly inescapable condition of life — and with it the necessity for diversion on an industrial scale."
Now it's off to check my prizeless Three Kings' Bread that I have baking in the oven. I realized that the bread is fairly low-fat for a holiday bread, and it hits my craving for sweets in a far more healthy way than cookies or cake. So, today, I'm baking another 2 loaves. Baking bread soothes me in a way that few other activities can.
I think of my grandmother, who got up every morning and started the dough for the bread (yeast rolls) that she served every day with the midday meal. She also made several pies a week to go with the meals that relied on food that she and my grandfather grew in their backyard garden. She sewed all of her clothes for most of her life--this fact explains why she rarely wore pants, which are much more difficult to make--as well as clothes for my mom and sister and me, and a variety of blankets out of scraps.
She would scoff at the idea that she was an artisan, yet I think of all these younger women and some men, flocking to these activities now. I think of the urban gardeners described in the article in The Atlantic, growing food on the roof of a building that houses the offices of one of the last small-scale manufacturers of after-market precision auto parts still in the U.S.
I yearn for a job that satisfies my yearning to be an artisan, to make stuff with my hands, to grow stuff, to nurture the next generation--yet that still gives me time and energy to write, to read, to think.
Ultimately, I think it's unreasonable for me to look for a paying job that satisfies all the needs of my working self, just like it's unreasonable to think that a best friend or a significant other can satisfy all my emotional needs. I'm working on being happy with a job that pays the bills but leaves me some free time to bake bread and to write and to work on whatever creative projects intrigue me without having to worry about translating my creativity into profit.
I'm trying not to be scared that my job and that the entire higher ed industry will vanish.
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