Skills Don’t Pay the Bills - NYTimes.com
I actually had some hope for this Adam Davidson piece. After all, he quotes my favorite labor economist, my buddy Mark Price (follow Mark on Twitter here).
But he lets it all collapse at the end, after pointing out rightly that the so-called skills gap isn’t a skills gap at all. “Trying to hire high-skilled workers at rock-bottom rates is not a skills gap,” a study from the Boston Consulting Group noted. Skilled, educated workers, many of whom have debt out their ears from getting said education, are expected to work for $10 an hour?
“It’s easy to understand every perspective in this drama,” Davidson writes, but as usual he finds it much easier to relate to the bosses than to the workers.
Which is perhaps why Davidson takes “weakened unions” as a fact of life, rather than a result of years and years of sustained attacks on unions from all angles, from the courtroom to Congress to the shop floor. “The social contract has collapsed” is a passive-voice monstrosity that masks the reality that the workers kept up their end of the bargain and indeed conceded time and again (witness the Hostess story for a perfect example). The contract didn’t collapse of its own weight, it was violated again and again.
Davidson could find experts and a boss to quote, but couldn’t go find, say, a union manufacturing worker to discuss, say, the last twenty or thirty years of attempts by the bosses to force down wages, turn pensions into 401(k)s, cut back on healthcare contributions, and lay off workers entirely to ship jobs to China.
The last paragraph, where Davidson’s argument collapses entirely as he lets the boss steer him into the neoliberal blogger’s favorite hobbyhorse, is really special. Education is the problem! Education will save us! He conveniently neglects to mention that $10 an hour starting salary from just the previous page. Hell, I’m surprised that he didn’t find a way to outright blame teachers’ unions for the fact that “too few graduate high school with the basic math and science skills that his company needs to compete.”
As Seth Ackerman pointed out, “competitive” wages is a stick applied to workers by neoliberal writers and opinion leaders to remind the proles of their place. The wage that Davidson’s pet boss is offering is uncompetitive even in a country where real wages are debased—nobody will take the jobs he’s offering at the pay rate he’s offering them.
Yet Davidson, who wholeheartedly believes in free markets, has to find something else to blame for the failure of employers to offer a wage that workers will take. Enter the favorite punching bag of the well-educated pundit class: public schools.
You see, if those schools were just cranking out workers with the right math and science skills, we’d be able to compete! (Which, in this case, means “get workers to take lousy $10 an hour jobs”.)
Here’s the thing: if public schools were actually graduating close to 100% of the students they taught with the precise math and science skills that Davidson and his pet boss want, they’d still be “competing” for the same lousy $10 an hour jobs. In fact, the glut of skilled workers would most likely push those wages down, because even though, as Price pointed out, the “shortage” of skilled workers hasn’t seen a rise in wages for those skilled jobs, we most certainly have seen downward pressure on wages as unemployment has remained high.
In other words, we don’t need more educated workers until we have the good jobs to offer them.
Education is a great thing for its own sake. I want to see free higher education for all who want it. But even without the millstone of student debt around the necks of young people, $10 an hour jobs are not going to fix the economy. As Heidi Shierholz, Natalie Sabadish and Hilary Wething at the Economic Policy Institute pointed out in a recent report, young people still have few opportunities, face high unemployment and even higher underemployment.
But that’s a scary thought, and so even though Davidson starts off heading in that direction, he screeches to a halt and turns off down the reliable path of calling for “education”, never mind that his conclusion almost completely contradicts the points he’s made earlier in the piece.
Because if he were going to open up a real discussion about low wages and skilled workers and outsourcing, he’d perhaps have to admit that the market solutions he favors won’t fix these problems.