Monday, February 09, 2009

White Collar, Blue Collar, No Collar

February 9, 2009

The "soft middle" of non-technics white collar work is the only remaining target for cost-cutting; in a reversal of post-industrial recession pattern, the blue-collar technics jobs will remain while middle-management and other "soft" positions will be slashed.

Here is what happened in every post-war recession: blue-collar manufacturing and construction-related jobs were cut as factories lowered production, while the white-collar strongholds in government and corporate structures were relatively untouched. The cuts were on the production side, not the marketing/management /reporting side.

As the economy started a new cycle of growth (and borrowing for new cars, homes, appliances, etc. rose), then production on the factory floor was ramped up to meet resurgent demand.

This time it will be different. All the blue collar positions have already been trimmed over the past five decades: where there were once three school janitors, now there is one. Where there were 300,000 steel workers, now there are 65,000--and so on.

What is dawning is a new appreciation for technics-related work. By that I mean what was once known as "skilled labor": the welders who keep refineries on line, the folks who keep the canning machines working, the employees who know how to repair the glass-coating ovens, etc.

Within technics I would add all essential IT (information-technology) work: those who keep security up to date, the servers on line, etc.

In a bizarre, nonsensical twist, we as a nation have denigrated the welders and technics workers by lumping them into assembly-line work which required five minutes of learning for a lifetime of work. Those jobs are gone from the U.S.

It takes longer to learn how to be a truly skilled welder than it does to earn a marketing or business degree. It takes longer to learn the tricks of industrial ovens than it does to earn an MBA.

We as a culture have assumed technics workers are interchangable and easily replaceable; we are about to learn they are irreplaceable and it's the white collar middle-class jobs which are expendable. Where there were once two support staff per 20 teachers, now there are 10 or more support staff in school district offices for 20 teachers. The decision now faces us: either eliminate the teachers from the classrooms or cut the support staffing to historic levels--roughly 50%-80% of what exists today.

We as a nation will have to start looking at what constitutes productive work, and start making what are currently considered "impossible" choices: either keep your mainline teachers and get rid of bilingual education, all the masses of mostly useless reporting performed by support staff, or keep the support staff, bilingual ed, etc., and fire the teachers. Absurd? So it sounds now, but there is really no other choice.

The can be said of every government department, where support staff has doubled and tripled from historic levels in police departments, city halls, etc. We as a nation have had the luxury of demanding ever more reporting, data massaging, and politically correct programs on both the left and right to placate various political groups and special interests.

Now we will have to choose between keeping police on the beat, teachers in the classroom and technics staff actually keeping the refineries going or maintaining top-heavy overhead staffs of white-collar workers spending their careers meeting endless demands for reports, meeting agendas, marketing plans, etc.

It seems obvious to me that the great blade which has cut through blue-collar work for decades is about to begin work on the great "soft middle" of white-collar work. We as a nation are about to realize facilitators, project managers, HR coordinators, marketing assistants, etc. are far more interchangable and dispensible than those technics-related jobs which actually keep the infrastructure of energy, transportation, manufacturing and education working.

NOTE: I will be hard-pressed to respond to email for the next week or so--my apologies to all correspondents.

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