Pandemic of Societal Stigma?

What Factors Really Underlie the Job Crisis?

While the pandemic has certainly borne the lion's share of blame for much of the societal tumult over the past eighteen or so months, some pundits want to add to its malfeasant credentials the job crisis we find ourselves in. According to a report by ABC News, there are 10 million job vacancies, yet over eight million Americans unemployed and seeking work.

The evidence of this labor crisis abounds. A stroll through any store, business, or restaurant (if the dining room is open) reveals the scars of what has now become a significant labor shortage. In our own small town, national fast-food chains have limited themselves to drive-thru service only, cut their hours, or closed their doors indefinitely. In every big-box retailer, store shelves sit empty, and we’ve just been alerted that “Santa” may have issues of his own delivering toys this year, because his top elf who manages the supply chain, was caught with his peppermint-striped tights down.

It’s easy to entirely reckon this job shortage as yet another vestige of an unrelenting virus, because it impacts us in a very visible way – our ability to consume good food, and consumer goods. While the closed dining rooms and modified work hours are but a recent phenomenon, its likely anyone over the past ten years or so, soliciting the services of a skilled laborer – be it a plumber, electrician, or finish carpenter – has had to be placed on a waiting list. Most recently, in reaching out to three local rail fabricators about building a stair-rail for our staircase, each reported having work booked out as far as six to nine months!

So is the pandemic the main culprit in the labor shortage, or could there be other factors in play? Joseph Sunde, writing for The Acton Institute, suggests the cause of the labor shortage goes back much further than the start of the pandemic – in fact, he argues it goes back many decades as “. . . Americans have tended to over-elevate certain jobs and careers above others,” to the end we’ve prompted “. . . a general resistance to ‘the trades’ or ‘work with the hands’ and a glorification of desk jobs, startups, and the various comforts of ‘creative spaces.’”

Who could argue? The creed of the culture decreeing that young people have to “go to college in order to get a real job,” is hardly subtle, ringing every bit as cacophonously as mask and vaccine mandates. Having been buttressed by government initiatives pushing college-preparatory skills (such as reading and mathematics) at the expense of vocational skills (woodshop, home economics, auto-shop), many students are not even aware of career paths not requiring a four-year degree.

Mike Rowe, in an interview with PBS News Hour economics correspondent Paul Solman, echoed this concern, saying, “[i]n the eyes of many parents and the eyes of many counselors, the trade school was the thing you did if you weren’t cut out for university.” Not only do parents and counselors besmirch jobs in the trades - for young blacks preparing to make college and career choices - the African American culture at large does as well, according to Atlanta electrician Tonya Hicks (who happens to be black). She remarked, “[a]fter the civil rights movement a lot of African American children were encouraged to go to college,” lamenting that sometimes the culture looks down on blue-collar workers, as if they are “less” than their college-degreed counterparts.

The stigma on such work is not new, especially among society’s more “elite” class. The erudite nature of “university” has always been a draw, even when that university education does not advance fruitful labor – which historically and to the present has very often been the case. As many surprised parents can testify, the dark side of a university education reaches even deeper than generating an unemployable college degree and the commensurate debt incurred to get it. Many parents do not even recognize their own children once they’ve gone through the university system.

About 125 years ago, French polymath and psychologist Gustave LeBon decried the university system’s power to instill in pupils “. . . who have submitted to it a violent dislike to the state of life in which they were born,” adding “[t]he working man no longer wishes to be remain a working man.” The Frenchman further indicts the education system as it “. . . creates an army of proletarians discontented with their lot and always ready to revolt, while at the summit it brings into being a frivolous bourgeoisie, . . . having a superstitious confidence in the State.”

LeBon’s principal complaint was that the French education model generated graduates who had a disdain for the fields and workshops, acquiring voluminous amounts of book knowledge for which there was no use, to the end it was “. . . a sure method of driving a man to revolt.” The draw away from practical trades not only hurt the students themselves, but French society, Lebon argued.

LeBon adds that “[t]he conditions of success in life are the possession of judgement, experience, initiative, and character – qualities which are not bestowed by books,” but rather in useful and fulfilling labor. Contrasting the empty experience to be had in excessive “book learning” with the palpable engagement in real labor, LeBon quotes psychologist M. Taine:

Ideas are only formed in their natural and normal surroundings . . . growth is effected by the innumerable impressions appealing to the senses which a young man receives daily in the workshop, the mine, the law court, the study, the builder’s yard, the hospital; at the site of tools, materials, and operations; in the presence of customers, workers, and labour.[1]

Taine goes on to lament “[t]he young Frenchman is deprived, and precisely at the age when they are most fruitful, of all these precious contacts,” since he is shut up in school, and “cut off from that direct personal experience which would give him a keen and exact notion of men and things and of the various ways of handling them.”

For LeBon and Taine, the French schools were producing nothing but malcontent, wishful philosopher-rulers who had fewer skills than marrying themselves to “. . . odious text-books and . . . pitiable examinations” by institutions which drew them away from the productive work in the fields and workshops (which they avoid at all costs).

It would appear late 19th century France looks much like we do today. In the PBS News Hour clip Mike Rowe adds, “The push for one form of education . . . really was the beginning of a long list of stigmas, stereotypes, myths, and misperceptions that to this day dissuade millions of kids from pursuing a legitimate opportunity to make six figures in the trades.”

In addition to good money and job security, many skilled tradespeople reported that their jobs really imparted to them a sense of real purpose – especially during the pandemic. Many plumbers and electricians explained how they are routinely hailed as “heroes” by their customers. “I can’t tell you the amount of pride from people in our industry, how we felt that we needed to keep the country going,” explained Tonya Hicks.

Fortunately, Rowe seemed to think the pandemic worked to remove much of the stigma associated with the skilled trades. Joseph Sunde remarked, “[h]opefully, the problems of the pandemic will yield a greater understanding and appreciation for the interconnectedness of the modern economy, allowing us to embrace and celebrate all kinds of work – to appreciate its essentialness, meaningfulness, and complexity.”

Had we a Christian worldview where work is concerned, the labor shortage would certainly be ameliorated. Looking back to Medieval Europe, Reformer John Calvin changed the way people viewed labor. Challenging the cultural creed of his day, he taught that every single believer had a vocation to serve God in every sphere of human existence. Consequently, the stigma of “ordinary” work was removed, as all labor was viewed with dignity. This high regard for all work did much to facilitate the development of an enterprise culture wherever it was embraced. We can all hope that if the pandemic taught us anything – it is the God-given creed that all work is essential.

[1] Le Bon, Gustave. The crowd: A study of the popular mind. Dover Publications, 2002, p. 56.

graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno, with a BS in molecular biology and a minor in cognitive psychology. As an undergraduate, she conducted research in immunology, microbiology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, scanning tunneling microscopy and genetics - having published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and projects in scanning tunneling microscopy. Having recently completed an M.Ed. from University of Cincinnati and a Certificate in Apologetics with the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, Emily is currently an instructional designer/content developer for Moody Bible Institute and teaches organic chemistry and physics. As a former Darwinian evolutionist, Emily now regards the intelligent design arguments more credible than those proffered by Darwinists for explaining the origin of life.

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