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RATZENBERGER: Skilled labor falls by the wayside

America’s bailout culture leads away from practical employment

- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2010

The "jobs crisis" is nothing new. In fact, the current political debate misses the bigger picture. It won't be elected officials and bankers alone who save the day. What our leaders have been doing - and not doing - has consequences for American jobs and the future of American enterprise. We've each got a stake in the game, and we each have a role to play in fixing it.

I've met with hundreds of American community leaders and entrepreneurs who have joined our campaign to tackle the bigger jobs issue. We don't have enough jobs right now and, conversely, we don't have enough skilled workers to fill key jobs. Major obstacles blocking solutions to our national jobs crisis - abusive litigation, complex regulations and cultural biases - have been addressed on an ad hoc basis, like over-the-counter cold remedies.

These are challenges that must be tackled together, with an eye toward "actions have consequences," or they will kill us separately. We need a plan that will cure the patient, not just treat our symptoms. That's why I've kicked off a national campaign.

America has moved away from its common-sense, risk-reward ethos formed over many generations into a consequence-free mentality, in which bad decisions don't really change behavior. Tragically, one word best describes a broad section of the "new America" - bailout.

I agree with Matthew Crawford, the author of the 2009 best-seller, "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work"; namely, that the way we work from top to bottom has broad public consequences. See America in 2010 - the consequences abound.

Mr. Crawford observes that "in the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don't think you'll see a yellow sign that says 'think safety' ... no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make." His practical suggestion says it all: "Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade ... so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?"

As part of our national campaign for skilled workers, I am currently in production on a documentary, "Industrial Tsunami." What I'm finding in my daily chats with innovators and employers is that the "loss of skilled workers" is a symptom of our nation's "bailout" culture.

Here's how this plays out: A teenager gets hurt in high school shop class. His parents sue the school. The school district cannot afford the costs of liability risk, so they cancel vocational training. Thousands of kids in one school district go without the opportunity for hands-on skills training.

This same teenager graduates high school and faces a media culture that tells him that he must go to college or be a failure. Taking a minimum-wage service job, he reads about high unemployment in the daily newspaper. Despite available technical training and vocational schools, he doesn't think that jobs really exist on the other side. The celebrity culture further stigmatizes his views on skilled work. Only low-class people work with their hands, or so goes the implied message.

Meanwhile, employers are starving for skilled workers in all sectors, from health care to infrastructure construction and repair to high-tech manufacturing. These employers, however, face an ever-increasing mountain of regulations that sap resources from recruiting and hiring into bureaucratic compliance that often has little to do with public health, safety and welfare. Skyrocketing liability insurance premiums and litigation costs drain further dollars away from training - not to mention research-and-development innovations that would create millions of new jobs. That would be too costly, too risky.

Loss of opportunity. No incentives. Loss of pride in work. These are symptoms of the underlying disease that the media calls "the jobs issue." As a former carpenter, I can assure you that smashing your thumb with a hammer teaches you to move your thumb out of the way. If you don't move your thumb, the house doesn't get built. These are the consequences facing Wall Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and Main Street.

John Ratzenberger is an actor and entrepreneur.

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