Freitag, Juni 26, 2009

In Praise of ... Skilled Labor

This caught my eye.

One of my greatest problems with academia and those who populate it - I grew up in an academic family - is the implicit, never spoken assumption that white collar work is better than blue collar work.

But it's not an assumption: it's an article of faith, a fundamental underlying belief that working with your hands is something that, at best, you do as a hobby, one to be indulged by those who would rather that their friends not be so mundane.

What arrogance.

At one point in my life, when I was more indulgent in using my time to explore arcane ideas, I studied philosophy and worked on the philosophy of technology, which, as you can imagine, is a fairly poorly defined field. Technology, after all, is nothing more than the logic of tools: how can this be studied?

In many ways it can't: good technology is transparent, it becomes an extension of your self, of your being, such as using a hammer to drive in nails. A good hammer, properly weighted and balanced, is a thing of beauty, allowing you to cease paying attention to holding it and aiming it to hit the nail and not your thumb: a good hammer lets you put the nails precisely where you want them to be, without even contemplating how you are going to do it. This is also true for master carpenters: they don't think about how to build that cabinet, they just make it so.

The article I refer to has a PhD is political philosophy, but has found that his real life calling is as a motorcycle repairman.

For an academic, one who lives and worships in the ivory tower, that is an admission of vast failure, a proof that admissions to graduate programs should be tightened to keep out this kind of people.

For me, it's really the main reason I'm not an academic.

One of my hobbies is watchmaking. Not merely collecting watches - I am the moderator for what has become the world's largest and most popular watch collecting forums on the Internet, Watchuseek in the Netherlands, moderating both the Vintage & Pocket Watch forum as well as the Pilot/Military watch forum - but also the watchmaking itself. I've had around 30 hours of training at this point from a master watchmaker and know just barely enough to realize that I know very little about watchmaking.

But I persevere. I don't have a proper watchmaking area at home and clearing the debris from my desk - blogging, photography, watches, bills, sundries - prevents me from really getting into it. I want an old watchmaker's lathe, powered by a foot pump, to work on parts; I want a micro CNC machining center to make gears. I have ideas about how to improve watch accuracy that have to be tried out in the real world.

But most of all, I marvel at watch movements. The best are pieces of art, the worst are functional tools that simply do their job. I know several watchmakers at this point, from the fairly rude and impatient master watchmaker with over 50 years career as master watchmaker behind him to the bright, industrious, dedicated master watchmaker who taught the courses I took and who, with a smile, fixes the mistakes and errors I bring him.

So here is praise for the manual worker, the fellow who has dedicated his life to doing things with his hands, who can take a look at something and who doesn't even have to think about what to do and how to do it, but rather visualizes the final product and lets his hands do the rest.

I've tried to persuade my daughters to become watchmakers, to do what I wished I could do. So far no luck: at least they do know, however, that there are real-world jobs that don't require a degree.

But what those real-world jobs require is skills.

To bring this back to the world of economics, one has to understand the value of labor. It is the great failure of most economics to not differentiate between skilled and unskilled labor, and even then not to differentiate between skill levels of labor. It is perhaps one of the great failures of the economics profession to not understand fully what skilled labor really means, which is not unsurprising, given the difficulties in evaluating skilled labor. It is indeed the great failure of the unions that they reward seniority, rather than skills: that has, fundamentally, weakened the labor movement, rather than to have strengthened it.

The point that the article I refer to makes briefly deserves to be expanded: skilled labor can't be exported. It has to be consumed locally, and it is mobile. Not nearly as mobile as capital, but nonetheless capable of voting with its feet. You might be able to send, say, a watch to be worked on in some distant city, but you have to seek skilled labor. In the US skilled labor creates a reputation via word-of-mouth, recommendations from satsfied customers; in Europe, skilled labor is the result of apprenticeship systems with guilds and the creation of formalized training for master craftsmen. I don't know how it is done in Japan or elsewhere in Asia.

Skilled labor is always in demand. Unskilled labor is dumb labor: it makes no difference who does it, it can be done anywhere, and at the end of the day the unskilled laborer is indeed the proletariat, a faceless member of a group that lacks the control over the means of production. Skilled labor always controls the means of production: simply put, a company that thrives by using skilled workers is one that cannot afford to have unhappy workers who take their skills with them when they leave. That is, they control the means of production.

Unskilled workers are readily exchangeable, and indeed many industries have effectively left the industrialized countries to move to China and elsewhere in Asia where unskilled labor is almost so cheap as to be meaningless in terms of costs during the production process. Rote skills, standing on an assembly line, putting part A in part B and attaching two screws in 12 second takt, that is the modern face of unskilled labor. It is where labor has become industrialized, where the skill is mere dexterity, doing without understanding.

Those jobs move whereever their cost is lowest. The people don't, and unemployment results. Japan has hollowed-out, as has the UK and the US, with many if not most unskilled manufacturing gone to lower-cost countries. Europe is actively exporting these jobs to Eastern Europe.

But skilled labor?

Japan is facing a massive shortage of skilled labor. Germany as well, despite high unemployment rates. Try to find a good plumber in the US, or a good electrician, and you will quickly find how scarce such labor is, especially if you are not in a major city.

Labor policies today should be oriented towards increasing labor skills. Sure, programs exist right now to help increase labor skills, but these are ponderous efforts crippled by misconceptions of what skills are needed.

But consider this to in praise of skilled labor. For the post-industrial society, it will turn out to be that which makes or breaks the economy.

1 Kommentar:

MonkAre hat gesagt…

It’s so nice site. We love to see more on this site. Keep on updating… MonkAreRee Bali ***