Simplification of skilled work

And here’s the corollary: over here, Ford, GM, Boeing, Caterpillar, and others want us to be lower skilled. Wait, they prefer low-skilled workers? Yes. Now that’s contrary to what you and I are told; it’s contrary to what President Obama, the pundits, and even the companies are saying. It’s the world turned upside down. I know it’s hard to believe. After all, if it’s true that corporations don’t want us to be higher skilled, then it’s pretty demoralizing for those of us who would like to push for more education, more job training. What’s the point, right?

But before you dismiss the claim, listen to what David has to say about how things have changed over time at Ford. “They have a system there,” he said. “I like to call it ‘Simplicity.’ It’s to break everything down into the simplest possible tasks.” Indeed, he claims that both the hourly and the salaried positions are being simplified. By that David means that there used to be skill sets, or different levels of work. In the old labor contracts these skill sets had names, “classifications.” It might be General Utility or Repair. The newbies would say, “Hey, I see that guy over there. How can I do what he’s doing?” It used to mean more pay. One went to Ford to move up and develop higher skills in order to get more pay.

Well, that’s gone.

The “classifications” in general may soon disappear. Or let’s put it this way: entry level will be the classification, and people will stay there. Even if people learn higher skills, which used to lead to more money, they will stay at the entry level, at entry-level pay. And here I’d add that in nonunion places it is even harder to move up. People start at welder at $17 an hour, and they stay at welder at $17 an hour.

There is a puzzle about welder pay,
which lately has received comment in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. The puzzle is that there is a shortage of welders, and employers moan about it. But the pay is stuck at $17 an hour, where it’s been for years. That means the real inflation-adjusted wage is dropping. Even with a shortage of labor, the wage drops. But worse, after the welder starts and gains experience, the pay does not go up.

Geoghegan, Thomas. Only One Thing Can Save Us

Is labor’s day over or is labor the only real answer for our time? In this new book, National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan argues that even as organized labor seems to be crumbling, a revived—but different—labor movement is now more relevant than ever in our increasingly unequal society.