The Merits of Getting Dirty

Commentary by Bob Schaller, Dept. of Economic Dev., St. Mary's County

Every morning I view a picture of our youngest son running a gas-powered tamper, a machine the size of a jackhammer, on a job site about 5 years ago. That summer he worked as a plumber's helper instead of lifeguarding or interning in an office. He earned certification as an apprentice that allowed him to work the next summer in the field. This time he rode on a truck to customer sites that on occasion included septic tank cleaning. He could not avoid getting (real) dirty in this field. His college degree helped him find a job as an analyst supporting Navy programs in which he's done well. But he will never forget those two summers of "honest work."

Two months ago I wrote about innovation, and how this challenge could propel us to sustained economic prosperity. 2011 marks the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy's inaugural year challenge: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." Many innovations later this goal was achieved. Fifty years hence we are still benefitting from this decade's endeavor.

How did we achieve this incredible feat? Recall that America was then the leading manufacturer in the world. We had both the national will and wherewithal for such a daunting task. According to Andrew Liveris, our manufacturing prowess was largely responsible. "For the 30 years after World War II, America experienced a post-war boom driven by manufacturing that helped build a vibrant middle class, not just in the United States, but around the world. Between 1947 and 1973, family incomes doubled. According to the State Department, gross domestic product grew 50 percent between 1940 and 1950 and another 67 percent between 1950 and 1960." I highly recommend the book I'm reading, Make It in America: The Case for Re-Inventing the Economy, by Andrew N. Liveris, Chairman and CEO, The Dow Chemical Company, 2011.

Liveris makes a compelling case that without manufacturing we are nothing. In a section titled, Trying to Survive on Ideas Alone, he states "Where manufacturing goes, innovation inevitably follows." At some level the notion of a Knowledge Economy is an oxymoron, according to Liveris. Knowledge in itself doesn't produce anything, except maybe more knowledge. He argues that manufacturing, in addition to the direct jobs it creates, creates more jobs outside its own sector than any other sector. Think of the supply chain from raw materials to tooling and other suppliers. What is the supply chain for knowledge? Academia. Note the contrasting growth/decline trends between industry and academia in more recent decades.

Hopefully the two are not mutually exclusive. One informs the other (i.e., innovation follows manufacturing, or vice versa). But "dirty" production jobs are giving way to cleaner professional services jobs at an alarming rate. Terms like blue vs. white collar don't really apply anymore because the jobs landscape has changed so much. No longer is there a definitive middle-class that is the basis of our economy. Traditionally it was this group where most of the jobs were, whether in factories or on farms, that dictated the rhythm of economic activity. Liveris argues that "somewhere along the way, a leadership class emerged-in the public and private sector-that no longer valued the manufacturing sector… they had come to see manufacturing as merely a phase of economic development, something that a nation eventually outgrows." A decade ago, socio-economist Richard Florida coined the term, Creative Class, as an emerging group that draws on "complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems" using higher degrees of education to do so. Indeed, we are rapidly populating a creative class. For example, we are investing heavily in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) curricula. Looking ahead, what label will we have for the workforce a decade from now? Where do you go after you're creative (or super-creative according to Florida)?

As in all things, somewhere between The Rise of the Creative Class and Make It in America is truth. Let's return to our youngest son. Learning both plumbing and chemistry will serve him well into the future. He is the new workforce. Maybe we should add another M at the end of STEM to include Manufacturing.

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