Service of Skilled Labor

February 18th, 2010

Categories: Leisure, Management, Manufacturing, Skilled Labor, Technology, Training

HM Byington wrote this guest post. Byington is a retired international banker and an officer of J M Byington & Associates, Inc.

The respected British popular historian, Paul Johnson, is the author of many thoughtful, well selling commentaries on the modern world and what many consider to be the finest history of Judaism ever written by a non-Jew.

In reply to a question asked him during a recent C-Span interview, he admitted that the unemployment problem in the United States (and by inference in Western Europe) was certainly caused in part by our having exported many jobs requiring skilled labor to the Third World.

However, he also argued that our unemployment woes would best be cured by our focusing our considerable intellectual competence and expertise in capital formation on inventing and selling new products and ideas to the rest of the world, instead of trying to retain, whether by subsidies, tariffs or other means, our traditional leadership as a dominant manufacturing nation.

This is not a new idea, and is one often put forward by politicians and business leaders to explain away the problems that the dismantling and exportation abroad of much of this country’s industrial base over the past 30 years have caused.

I strongly disagree.

Almost all new products are refinements of existing products. They come about because someone skilled and proficient in their manufacture has a bright idea about how to make something better. They do not come like lightning bolts out of some academic think tank.

A fine violin must be played regularly to maintain the beauty of its tone, and the mind is not dissimilar. A sharp mind remains sharp if used, and if pushed usually becomes even sharper. A skilled laborer remains skilled if he uses his skills as anyone who has learned a foreign language can attest. If you don’t use a language, you lose it.

There is also the psychological issue. Someone who is un- or under-employed is likely to face debilitating anxiety or even depression. A craftsman who can no longer practice his craft is in danger of losing his will as well as his skill.

Some 50 years ago, along with other young Foreign Service officers, I took part in a seminar at the Department of State at which a futurist made the point that the gravest problem that the United States would be facing in the next century would be its need to manage the massive leisure time that its citizens would be enjoying. I never forgot his prediction, and he turned out to be right!

Just take a look at how much time and money so many of us devote to seeing the latest in films, on television and in spectator sports, playing computer games, surfing the internet, talking on cell phones, listening on iPods, poking BlackBerries, twittering and blogging, attending theme parks, going on cruises, shopping at malls, and on the darker side, consuming social drugs and alcohol, or just sitting around. If government is not our most formidable industry, then leisure must be. Unfortunately people at leisure are likely neither to be skilled nor productive, and even worse, our young have learned to mimic them. (Witness the decline in educational standards in this country.)

I suppose one could argue that this will not be a real problem as long as those skilled people abroad now providing us with much of what keeps us happy (and lending us the money to pay them for it) will continue to go on doing what they are doing.

However, I believe that we are in far greater peril than we dare imagine. It is an inevitability of nature that the most skilled will always come to dominate the least skilled, and we live in a world of diminishing resources and expanding populations.

If we are to survive at least with some of the freedoms we still enjoy, we must at all cost rebuild our skilled labor force and defend it against the inroads of those who would put the making of short term profits before the long term well being of our society.

Does anyone agree with me?


5 Responses to “Service of Skilled Labor”

  1. Martha Takayama Said:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the eloquent observations about our vanishing academic and vocational training programs. We seem to have outsourced not just production but the disposition for learning, training for, and acquisition in many cases of academic knowledge and even more so, of skills.
    It is useless to lament the decline our economy, the failure of our domestic products to be competitive and make no efforts to produce qualified, skilled and motivated workers. It seems that we as a nation have come to glorify ignorance, disinterest in learning, and the ability to produce quality products or services, It appears to be totally unrealistic to expect an economic recovery if our level of expectations from our population persists in its vertiginous decline.

  2. Deirdre Said:

    To me, there are two terrible aspects to the export of jobs. One is connected with your point: Once the jobs head elsewhere, they never come back and those skills here are lost. But what’s worse, I think, is that we’ve rewarded companies that have sent jobs elsewhere. We should not give them tax breaks for taking jobs away, we should tax them more, because they’re cause unemployment and other conditions that our tax dollars have to help solve. They’re sometimes creating ghost towns. And meanwhile, officers of the companies get huge bonuses because the company is earning so much more by having work done elsewhere for less than minimum wage here. Something that is so devastating to the U.S. as a community should not be rewarded.

    There is an argument, and I think it’s legitimate, that we *should* be world players, and that employment by American companies of overseas workers helps us on many levels. But companies shouldn’t be doing this at the expense of so many Americans.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    I agree with the post’s point of view as well as with Martha and Deirdre, and thank everyone for their thoughtful words.

    I’m a person with no manual skills and only my work experience as an example, but I can see how more quickly solutions come to me now than they once did. I agree that skills improve with use and that the person who uses a tool or machinery or has manufactured it for years, is the one to suggest a tweak that makes all the difference.

    I’ve also seen the extraordinary work of product designers. I can’t believe that they work in a vacuum and wake up one morning with the design for a great surgical tool when they haven’t for a second been in an operating room. R&D teams noodle over product introductions for years, which we often forget when we complain about prices.

    So as we close down plants and fire the workers in them, we are severely shrinking the possibilities for the creativity that Paul Johnson is counting on to get us out of this economic slump. Scary. I envision a drain with all of us circling it far too quickly.

  4. HM Byington Said:

    My thanks to all three of you for your supportive comments. I’m a little surprised for I had thought I was taking a fairly controversial stance on the subject — apparently not.

    Deidre — A quick answer on your commment about giving corporations incentives to move jobs off shore — You’re right of course. Obviously, the less corporations pay in wages,
    the more money they they make; the happier their shareholders are, and the more money they have to contribute to political campaigns.

    But there is another, perhaps darker side, to this. For some years I earned a living in a bank lending money to poor, third world countries, which I was pretty sure they would never be able to pay back, but then I realized that the US couldn’t ever pay back all the money it has borrowed either. The US government encouraged us to do this, both directly and indirectly. The argument went that prosperous countries are not threatening and that private sector funds make less public sector funds necessary to finance devolopment. The same goes for companies investing and manufacturing abroad, only in a more complicated way. To over simplify: If we could raise wages abroad to US levels, then there would be no reason for people to fight over economic issues. (What actually happens, of course, like in the schools when teachers don’t distinguish between the brightest and dumbest students and the overall quality of learning goes down, is that wages may go up in the third world, but they will come down here.)

    Two more thoughts:

    My real concern is less the skilled job evaporation problem, than what I believe is likely to be the eventual consequence of it. Nobody commented on this.

    What do we do to correct this mess? I have no realistic answers. Do you?

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I thought of exactly the same question: How do we change this situation?

    A Pollyanna answer would be for Americans to lower their expectations about how much they can afford to buy with the money they make and learn to live with less because what they need will cost more because it is made here.

    Are we willing to do this?

    And even if we are willing to do this, we owe so much money to China, we can’t stop buying from the Chinese.


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