Where Have All The Workers Gone?

Jerry Ortiz y Pino
5 min read
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My excitement about reaching the age at which one qualifies for Social Security benefits has been tempered drastically by a couple of demographic time bombs that wake me up in the wee hours of the morning and won’t let me go back to sleep.

The first was something I read in the context of the recent flubbed immigration reform debate. No, nothing Lou Dobbs or Tom Tancredo might have spouted; this was instead a hard factoid gleaned from that ever-suspect pinko source, the U.S. Census Bureau. It suggests we are about to run out of workers.

If the population burp represented by the baby boomer generation retires at the time they all become eligible for retirement, we will face a true (not a rhetorical, a psychological or a statistical but an actual) shortfall in Americans of employable age, a shortage that could reach three million as soon as the year 2015 … and get worse thereafter.

That is not a shortage of specific professions (doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers) but of healthy bodies available for
any kind of work. In other words, our economy is now creating jobs for which there will soon be no candidates.

The second bit of statistical fluff I can’t shake free came in one of the periodic departmental newsletters our newly appointed New Mexico State Secretary of Higher Education, Dr. Reed Dasenbrock, will mail to anyone interested. It jumped out at me: “Only 47 percent of New Mexico’s adults without a high school education are currently in the workforce.”

Since only about 50 percent of our students will graduate from high school if current trends continue, this means future generations of American worker bees will have to carry on their backs the twin burdens of supporting both an army of elderly retirees and a host of people (47 percent of 50 percent = 24 percent) ages 18 to 65 who are “outside the workforce.”

There used to be a lot of jobs those folks could do: manual labor; farm work; simple factory assembly lines; janitorial tasks. But each year sees fewer and fewer people needed for those tasks as machines get more sophisticated and replace unskilled workers.

The emerging gap is in those vocations that take training—but not necessarily college academic credentials. Construction trades of all sorts; mechanics; child care workers and nursing home assistants; automobile, bus and truck drivers; prison guards, security personnel and food service workers–those are the fields where it will become increasingly difficult to find workers, but where having them will be the most essential.

And if you rule out those who can’t pass a drug test or who have a criminal record in their history, employers are already finding the applicant pool shriveled drastically.

What adults who “are not in the workforce” do to survive, of course, is not always bad. Some are going to stay home and take care of their children. That is something society benefits from if it is done well. Others may take care of elderly or infirm relatives, and again, while that doesn’t kick up the GNP it is certainly something valuable for us all.

Unfortunately, however, a great many of them, I suspect, are participants in what is sometimes referred to as the “underground” economy. That means they support themselves by means of activity which is either illegal or which stays off the books of their employers because it is paid in cash, no benefits or taxes are involved and the hours and working conditions may be contrary to federal or state requirements.

A lot of people “not in the workforce” are in prison. We lock up a higher proportion of our citizens than any other First World nation—at an incredible price in dollars, lives and hope. A lot of others are homeless. And many are trapped in alcoholism, addiction or mental illness, conditions that for most employers make them unemployable; again the social and economic cost is enormous.

Wouldn’t it be smarter for us to begin reaching out to young people at ages 13, 14 or 15, when classroom instruction for many of them first starts becoming irrelevant or impossible and to create for them, using those public education dollars being wasted on academic instruction, a genuine vocational alternative?

In the ’60s we protested that minority kids were railroaded onto the vocational track instead of getting a fair shot at academic opportunities. But we made a terrible mistake in trying to teach every single kid as if they were college material when there were far more interesting and appealing options at hand.

Our culture is fascinated with high-tech geegaws. Certainly we need plenty of laser, nano and cyber technicians to keep us on the cutting edge and to be competitive globally. But we also need to supply the low-tech skills and the low-tech (but essential) work that is equally important and which should be similarly valued.

A high school diploma indicating a student is well-prepared to tackle the employment challenges in our emerging society cannot mean solely that they are ready to go on to four more years of academic work on a college campus somewhere. We need to make sure it can just as validly mean they have learned hard skills that make them employable right away.

Our schools need to rediscover the crucial importance of preparing every single student for employability. When we are running out of workers, we can’t afford to waste a single one.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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