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The Work Before Us

Nov. 26, 2021
The value of work is enshrined in the workers and their potential – not in the calculated cost, nor aggressive over-management, and not in opportunistic avoidance.

Two years ago manufacturers of all types – not least the foundries and diecasters, and the firms dedicated to supplying them – were increasingly concerned about “the skills shortage,” meaning their inability to locate enough reliable, intelligent people capable of performing complex and demanding work. Signing bonuses, training programs, and various other incentives never seem to draw enough talented individuals to fill the job openings created by heavy industrial and consumer demand – and raising wages and salaries is only a last resort.

So, businesses push their available workers to extend themselves when the workload requires it – and the skills shortage worsens into a labor shortage, as those few available workers become over-stressed and frustrated. In October, the president of a major manufacturing firm told me his company’s main plant was about 20% short of full employment, unable to get workers to respond to over-time incentives – and facing a steady wave of retirements by experienced (i.e., skilled) workers.

A year ago, businesses of all types were chafing against government regulations that forced them to curtail business activities in the governments’ fitful and often pointless efforts to manage human behavior, in their belief that this could halt a viral pandemic.

Six months ago, metalcasters petitioned the governor of a large state to stop incentivizing citizens not to work. Writing about that development, I commented that it was time to consider whether our society’s long-held assumptions about employment still apply – that free-market employment is advantageous for everyone: employers who gain the benefit of the labor; the society, as it prospers from the vitality of its enterprises and the ingenuity of its citizens; and especially workers, who not only are rewarded fairly for their effort but retain the liberty to apply their skills according to their own advantages.

Those assumptions represent admirable principles. They distribute authority and responsibility. They emphasize reward, thus minimizing the sense of servitude. And they encourage innovation in actions and outcomes, maximizing resources.

But our assumptions are all abstractions now. Even if we profess to accept the principles of free-market employment, they are violated on all sides: employers striving to avoid the rising costs of rewarding work; governments scheming to control the terms of employment; and increasing numbers of individuals who demand compensation and fulfillment without commitment or accountability to an employer.

Each side of the equation seems determined to reduce its responsibility and gain more autonomy: Employers want workers to sacrifice more time and effort, because they cannot find or will not pay for additional workers. Governments want employers to implement policies they have not the authority to impose, last year by inducing shutdowns, now by promoting vaccine mandates. Individuals choosing stimulus payments over employment are a recent variant of a trend long in development.

Last month the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s latest “job creation” figure fell nearly 500,000 jobs short of the forecast estimate: Jobs are available, but they’re not being accepted – because, collectively, we have lost a good and agreeable understanding of the reason to work. “Our problem is not an economy that doesn’t want to get started—it’s already started,” according to labor economist Ron Hetrick, quoted by the Wall Street Journal. “It just doesn’t have people to make the engine run. We don’t know how to reignite this thing right now.”

Without a new commitment to work, or more flexible regulations, or more acceptable reward systems, the burgeoning industrial and consumer demand will lead to wider application of automation systems and the end of work as we’ve known it. An automated society will generate wealth, but it will have no need for equality or the principles that protect and promote it.

“Choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life,” Confucius reportedly said, recognizing that almost nobody wants to work. We choose to work, in order to have the means to accomplish other things. Necessary things. Desirable things. Things that improve the world around us and then ourselves in the process. But for now, no one seems committed to that improvement.