October 11, 2015

What Labor Day Should Honor

Vocational and Technical Education

As we just observed the Labor Day weekend, there is a tendency for the media and for elected officials to reinforce obsolete views of labor and of vocational and technical skills required to compete in the global economy. There is also a tendency to celebrate the wrong qualities of people they would generally characterize as being part of the “working class.” As a result many of us have image of “blue collar jobs,” the skills required to do them well, and vocational and technical education required to prepare people for them that is wildly out of date.

Why What We Celebrate is Obsolete

Blogger David Burr concisely described why the Labor Day holiday was created:

“The holiday originated in 1882 as a result of the labor movement and was intended to be a day of rest to recognize the efforts of the average working man.”

We need to reinvent what we honor for this holiday. Labor Day was designed to recognize the value of the “average worker,” collective activity, labor union membership rights, and “hard work.” The typical image of the “blue collar” worker is someone using muscular power to do a physically demanding, backbreaking task. When I think of Labor Day as it has been celebrated historically, I am more likely to think of either the folklore of John Henry as a “steel driver” or the cleaning woman celebrated in Donna Summer’s great song “She Works Hard for the Money.”

The terms that these images convey are “average,” “collective,” “physically demanding,” and differentiated by wearing different clothing from one’s everyday wear, hence the reference to “blue collar.”

What I would like to see is best exemplified by the aspirations for Labor Day described in the blog of Steve McCallion, the Creative Director of Ziba, a design and innovation consultancy firm based in Portland, Oregon, in his blog entitled “Labor Day” Is Almost Meaningless Now. We Can www.fastcodesign.com/1662237/labor-day-is-almost-meaningless-now-we-can-change-that

McCallion makes a number of points:

  • “There’s an opportunity on Labor Day to raise awareness that American workers still make things — really cool things — and to inspire a new generation of makers.”

We need to reinforce the importance of manufacturing and of other trades and professions that involve the handling of physical objects. America is wildly imbalanced in the degree to which its best and brightest people are gravitating to financial services (which is too large a part of our economy), health care services, law, accounting, and strategic consulting. We need to put our economy back into balance.

  • What if national awards for excellence in engineering, science and mathematics were part of Labor Day celebrations, on the order of the Oscars or (God forbid) American Idol? The attributes that make the American worker great — collaboration, entrepreneurship and hard work — deserve at least as much attention as a strong voice or a “leading man quality.”

We need to focus on excellence, as opposed to “average” work, and to focus on the efficiency of work, as opposed to “hard work.” McCallion also combines the virtues of “collaboration” and “entrepreneurship,” which imply that people work together to be creative and to produce a result that is better and different than they could have produced individually. We often think of collective bargaining agreements as being designed to produce predictable, standardized tasks, as opposed to tapping the creative energies of workers coming together with management to create excellence in problem solving. At Pitney Bowes, we focused on rewarding ingenuity at all levels, even to the point of rewarding inventors who were not traditional engineers or scientists.

The word “labor” also implies celebrating physically demanding work. We need to reward individuals and organizations that figure out how to use technology and innovation to reduce or eliminate the physical energy required to do tasks, if, for no other reason, that these organizations undoubtedly reduce the incidence of musculo-skeletal injuries for workers.  At Pitney Bowes Mail Services, we had innovative software engineers that found ways to reduce the number of times mail had to be loaded and unloaded on to a sorter feeder tray. Over time, we moved more and more toward automated material handling systems to save on the wear and tear on our workers.

This is a trend across all industries and markets. Eaton Corporation, on whose board I sit, has been an integral player in moving toward automatic transmissions for large trucks, to reduce the physical force required to drive a truck long distances. Eaton also has excelled in fluid power applications for industrial and mobile vehicle applications, especially in physically demanding industries like construction, to reduce the quantity of human energy required to operate heavy equipment.

These innovations will reduce the number of jobs available for strong men with limited educational and technical attainment. Our wonderful era between 1946 and the 1990’s, in which individuals could graduate from high school, secure a middle class job with a company and stay employed until retirement is gone forever, not just because of global competition, but because the number of people required to perform physically demanding tasks has declined rapidly because of innovation that enables a single individual to do more work with technology than with human energy.

  • “Taking products apart and understanding how they’re made may be an invaluable lesson for today’s youth.”

We need to revitalize and rebuild vocational and technical education, not just as an alternative career path for those who are not interested in a traditional academic educational path, but for everyone with the brainpower and passion to start new businesses.

There are three things wrong with our perception of many traditional trades and professions:

  • As McCallion indicates, we do not understand how products are made. We particularly do not understand how technologically sophisticated and complex ordinary products have become. The best example of this is the automotive industry. Historically, when we have thought of automobile service technicians, we imagine a person sliding on a palette under a car and adjusting a mechanical part, or replacing battery or alternator belt under the front hood, or replacing a tire, a muffler, a bumper, or a side panel. We also envision a skilled mechanic observing and diagnosing a problem with a transmission, engine block, or a braking system, and replacing a defective part or system. At service stations, technicians used to change oil and other fluids, such as windshield washer fluid, and check tires.

All of these repair and maintenance activities still occur, although, as automobiles are built with higher quality designs, parts and materials, and manufacturing processes, traditional repairs are needed less frequently. More importantly, diagnostic issues are flagged by built-in sensors and computers, and they are often prevented by scheduled maintenance visits, as opposed to traditional repairs. Cars today are complex, multi-system assemblies of mechanical, chemical, electrical, fluid conveyance, communications, and sensing technologies, all of which must work together to make a car function as intended. If anything, there is less material, more electrical power management, more computing technology, and more communications required than ever before. An electrician will be more familiar with the inner workings of a car than a traditional auto mechanic as time goes on.

  • We also do not understand that many service professions require more manipulation and handling of physical items than ever before.

For example, when we think of the production of a feature film, we instantly focus on the actors, the director, the editor, the music producer, and the back office administrative functions that seem far removed from traditional “blue collar” trades. However, as I learned in producing From the Rough, the critical trades involved in movie making include the tailors, hair dressers, and make-up artists who support costume designers, electricians who support the cinematographer to manage the lighting required to shoot a scene, the carpenters who help build rooms and sets for the production designer, and the drivers who move the trailers, sets, equipment, and people from location to location.

Each of these trades requires specialized knowledge of the film industry. I was particularly struck by the degree to which the advances in high definition, digital cinematography have made performer acne issues more problematic. Just as the advent of sound in films penalized actors with thick foreign accents or the wrong kinds of voices for film audiences, actor and actress skin conditions now need to be addressed by more skilled make-up artists than was the case previously.

  • Traditional “blue collar” jobs require more high level conceptual thinking, as opposed to repetitive performance of standardized tasks. Those who do them best have to solve many situation-dependent problems in the ordinary course of doing their jobs.

There is a shortage of individuals who are doing better-than-average jobs in these traditional trades, particularly in their ability to think holistically and systemically about problems and solutions. For example, a film production designer now has to think about how a set will look through the lens of a high definition digital camera, and how it will look when edited on sophisticated software-based editing and workflow systems months after the film production process stops. The designer also has to envision how the set will look on posters and other artwork, on trailers played in theaters, and on the film’s web site.

With respect to automobiles, I learned from my town’s police chief that the demands of the public for more sophisticated technology in police cars have had two unintended consequences: far more strain on the police car batteries and electrical systems, and more wear and tear on the various pieces of the passenger compartment.

Over the years, I have been struck between the difference between the handful of great auto mechanics I have found, who are great problem solvers, and the majority of mechanics, who are competent to do basic tasks, but are poor problem solvers.

This pattern has emerged with many service providers. Most people get enamored of complex technology, of replacing parts, and, to use an analogy from medicine, of providing symptomatic relief. We fail to train people to think systemically and holistically about how to solve problems.

We must celebrate smart, innovative, thoughtful labor, not just people who do physically demanding work and try to remain “average.” We should celebrate everyone who does thankless and hard work on Labor Day, but we should particularly celebrate those who always strive to do their jobs at the highest skill level.

Most importantly, we should step back and think about we match the 23 million unemployed and under-employed Americans with the many jobs which go begging, because we do a poor job in our educational systems, and our job retraining systems producing the people with the skills needed to fill those jobs.