OFF THE WALL
Daniel Sulfridge writes…Mike, as a man who fights for the skilled trades and the people behind them, I’m curious what you think of Bloomberg’s comments against farmers and other skill tradesmen and tradeswomen.
I was struck by the smugness of Bloomberg’s remarks, and their underlying ignorance. But I wasn’t surprised, because all he really did, was articulate what many others already believe.
Before I go further, allow me to say that I go out of my way to avoid politics on this page. Well, not completely out of my way, but far enough to be routinely criticized for not publicly taking a side. Obviously, I have an opinion on most things, but as the CEO of a non-profit, bi-partisan foundation, it’s not my place to endorse candidates, or talk publicly about who I vote for. On the other hand, Mr. Bloomberg’s remarks are difficult to ignore, because they speak directly to the primary objective of my foundation – specifically, the business of challenging the many myths and misperceptions that dissuade millions of kids from considering a career in the trades.
These misperceptions exist for all kinds of reasons, but they continue to grow, thanks to the metaphorical fertilizer that Bloomberg and others are constantly spreading. When he implies for instance, that farmers and tradespeople do jobs that don’t require a great deal of “grey matter,” he simply reinforces a long list of stigmas, stereotypes, and colossally ignorant assumptions currently in play. Consider his actual words.
“You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.”
“You put the piece of metal in the lathe, you turn the crank in the direction of the arrow, and you can have a job.”
Today, many of his defenders are saying his comments were taken out of context, and I sympathize with that. It happens to me all of the time, and it’s frustrating. But what possible context can explain the ignorance of his basic claim?
Bloomberg seems to suggest that anybody can be a farmer, or a tradesperson, because doing so requires very little brain power. He’s wrong. For proof, I could direct you eight seasons of Dirty Jobs, or, to the thousand individuals my foundation has helped train for good paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. Unfortunately, like so many others, Bloomberg looks at the opportunities as “process jobs,” and therefore less intellectually demanding. This belief is widespread, and part of the reason we have 7.3 million open positions today, (most of which require training, not a degree,) and $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loans.
To state the obvious, farming is not merely a “process,” it’s a way of life that requires expertise in many areas, and the fact that just 2% of our population feed 300 million people three times a day, is nothing short of a marvel. The modern farmer is a businessman, an entrepreneur, a soil specialist, a crop specialist, an environmental engineer, a logistical whiz, a shrewd negotiator, a real estate expert, a prognosticator, a climatologist, and a technology expert. If he’s not all of those things, he’s out of business. Likewise, our crumbling infrastructure requires a trained workforce a hell of lot more sophisticated than the lathe operator Bloomberg describes. And that’s a problem, because the current shortages in the construction trades are real, as is the frustration expressed by so many, when their power goes off, or their pipes break, or the cost of milk or gasoline gets too high.
This isn’t a political problem, it’s a human one. We have a tendency I think, too resent the things we rely upon. Take a plumber for instance. If your only toilet breaks, you need it fixed – fast. Why? Because you rely on it. But also, because you can’t do it yourself. So, you need a plumber. But the plumber can’t come out for 48 hours, and all the other plumbers are busy. Then, when he finally arrives two days later, you can’t believe he charges $150 an hour! It’s an outrage! And so, you resent him, precisely because you rely upon him. And then, consciously or not, you make him small. You diminish his contribution, by turning him into a man who must follows the arrows, in order to get the job done.
Obviously, it’s not the plumber’s fault that he can’t get to your house the same day your toilet blows up. And it’s not the farmers fault that milk is expensive. And it’s not the lineman’s fault that the power went out. And it’s not the energy’s industry’s fault that we still rely upon oil and natural gas for just about every single thing we do. And yet, our tendency to demonize, marginalize, and talk about these industries as subordinate “alternatives” to other more laudable pursuits, is rampant. Worse, it’s fashionable. And it’s gotta stop. The question is how, and the answer, in part anyway, might have been floated in the most recent State of the Union, when President Trump said this:
“Tonight, I ask Congress to support our students and back my plan to offer vocational and technical education in every single high school in America.”
Again – aside from the fact that both of these billionaires want to be president, this isn’t a political post. But if I’m going to be honest about why I think Bloomberg is wrong, I should tell you why I think Trump is right. When we removed shop class from public schools, we sent an unmistakable message to millions of parents and kids. A chilling message. We told them, in the only way that really matters, that entire categories of jobs weren’t even worth considering. But we didn’t just tell them – we showed them. We literally removed all examples of skilled labor from view.
Is there a more persuasive way to tell a kid what’s irrelevant, than by removing it from view?
Our current skills gap isn’t a mystery, and neither is the student loan crisis. Both are reflections of what we value, and what we believe. And right now, a lot of people believe that good jobs are for college graduates, and the rest are for dummies. This belief should be challenged wherever it appears, by anyone who shares my addiction to reliable electricity, smooth roads, heating, air-conditioning, indoor plumbing, and three meals a day.
Obviously, my foundation doesn’t have the resources of a Trump or a Bloomberg, (though I’d accept donations from either.) But this year, I’m proud to offer another round of work ethic scholarships to qualified applicants willing to learn a useful skill. My goal is to award a million dollars by the end of March. Apply below.
And no, “qualified applicants” do not include those whose talents are limited to “throwing a seed in the hole,” or “turning a wrench in the right direction.” Sorry…