Did jobs shipped overseas bring a part of the American identity with them?
Louis Uchitelle, writing in Saturday's New York Times, suggests that manufacturing is not just an integral part of the American economy, but also of the country’s national identity.
Ask the administration or the Republicans or most academics why America needs more manufacturing, and they respond that manufacturing spawns innovation, brings down the trade deficit, strengthens the dollar, generates jobs, arms the military and kindles a recovery from recession. But rarely, if ever, do they publicly take the argument a step further, asserting that a growing manufacturing sector encourages craftsmanship and that craftsmanship is, if not a birthright, then a vital ingredient of the American self-image as a can-do, inventive, we-can-make-anything people.
Uchitelle describes a trip through a Home Depot store in New Rochelle, NY where the aisles and displays are littered with items intended to appeal to homeowners with the least DIY skills.
This isn’t a lament — or not merely a lament — for bygone times. It’s a social and cultural issue, as well as an economic one. The Home Depot approach to craftsmanship — simplify it, dumb it down, hire a contractor — is one signal that mastering tools and working with one’s hands is receding in America as a hobby, as a valued skill, as a cultural influence that shaped thinking and behavior in vast sections of the country.
As we’ve said before, high school and post-high school programs intended to teach manufacturing skills are disappearing, resulting in concern over the preparedness of the American workforce when manufacturing jobs are re-shored to the United States.
Craft work has higher status in nations like Germany, which invests in apprenticeship programs for high school students. ‘Corporations in Germany realized that there was an interest to be served economically and patriotically in building up a skilled labor force at home; we never had that ethos,’ says Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist who has written about the connection of craft and culture.
The American Alliance for Manufacturing (AAM) released a poll last week which indicated 89% of voters favor increases in state and federal investment in re-training and education programs for workers.
While the United States has lost millions of manufacturing jobs since 2000, the overall decline started several decades earlier. Uchitelle indicates that many American companies find manufacturing in the U.S. far more appealing now than they did not very long ago, especially when federal, state or local governments entice the companies with subsidies.
AAM’s poll showed a majority of American voters support such government actions. Read more.
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