In her thought-provoking essay, Suzanne Berger argues that our dominant financial strategies and incentives hamper innovation. She suggests that these strategies are not good for workers either, and I would like to elaborate on that point.
Because of the transformations Berger describes, there are fewer apprenticeships for entry-level workers and fewer opportunities for in-house training. Some industries do establish partnerships with local community colleges to train students for specialty manufacturing or technical service jobs, though these arrangements are often ad hoc and short-term. They do not emerge from a more comprehensive workforce development strategy.
But even if a miracle happened and tomorrow a major shift occurred in the relationship of finance and manufacturing, we’d still be faced with a limiting web of cultural assumptions about certain types of work and the workers who do them—assumptions that put a drag on the desired revitalization of manufacturing and innovation.
Our egalitarian ethos not withstanding, there is a tendency in the United States to attribute lower intelligence to those who work with their hands. There are counterexamples, of course, but the tendency is manifest in the dynamics of occupational status, in the history of vocational education, and in the myriad injuries of social class, from negative editorial characterizations of the intelligence of nineteenth-century laborers to the guy installing my washer who tells me that customers treat him and his coworker “like mules.” Similar attitudes exist about the work itself. In an earlier MIT report on industrial productivity, a senior executive at a major U.S. corporation wondered if “smart people” were needed in manufacturing.
We tend to denigrate those who work with their hands.
This tendency to denigrate entire categories of work and workers is amped up in our high-tech era. While there certainly are important distinctions to be made between the work of today and that of a generation or two ago, the commonplace “old economy–new economy” distinction leads to some terribly glib and inaccurate binary characterizations. The work of our time demands new twenty-first-century skills of problem solving, troubleshooting, and communication—as though the work of previous eras didn’t—for new work is neck-up versus neck-down in nature. Consider this not atypical summary from an award-winning management book: “Whereas organizations operating in the Industrial Age required a contribution of employees’ hands alone, in the Information Age intellect and passion—mind and heart—are also essential.” The significant cognitive content of physical work—some of which I detail in my book The Mind at Work (2014, 2nd ed.)—is erased in such comparisons.
Another element in this depiction of the American worker as inadequate is the much-discussed gap or mismatch between the skills workers possess and the skills needed by today’s industries. Granted, some job applicants have had poor educations and some lack the technological savvy that would give them a leg up; nonetheless the ubiquity of the skills-gap discourse further stigmatizes the American worker. According to the management scholar Peter Cappelli, this discourse masks an uncomfortable truth. It is not that today’s new workers are necessarily inadequate; it is that the availability of apprenticeships and in-house training that provided the necessary skills for a previous generation has diminished. What in fact is an erosion of opportunity is transformed into yet another deficiency of the American worker.
Along with contemporary changes in corporate structure has come reinforcement—even intensification—of negative and reductive ways of characterizing American workers. One result is an inaccurate assessment of the potential of those directly involved in production. Another is disinvestment in the education and training that create a robust workforce, from shop floor to market. If we hope to realize the innovative potential of manufacturing, we will have to address not only the structural dynamics that Berger describes, but cultural ones as well.