Do we live in a meritocracy, or is it all luck?
July 16, 2012
What’s the current state of the American dream? So many seem to work hard and do everything right--but just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Many metal fabricators may be running to the hilt, but much of the rest of the economy remains in slow acceleration. So many young people are facing meager job opportunities, and that’s left them rethinking the American dream. What is that dream, exactly? National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro put it this way: “Though the phrase has different meanings to different people, it suggests an underlying belief that hard work pays off, and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation.”
He added that the notion is uniquely American. Although we don’t feel people are entitled to success, we feel that hard work and playing by the rules should lead us to something better than our parents had. Success is within our control.
As Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center explained to NPR, “When Germans or French are asked the same questions about whether it’s within all of our power to get ahead, or whether our success is really determined by forces outside our control, most German and French respondents say, ‘No, success is really beyond our control.’”
After brutal recessions, globalization, and the resulting much smaller manufacturing base—at least when it comes to total employment—Americans are rethinking the notion of the American dream. This includes Adam Davidson of NPR’s “Planet Money” and columnist for The New York Times Magazine. Davidson talks about our “Plan A’s” and “Plan B’s.” Plan A usually included the dream job, what Davidson called a kind of “lottery-based” career path. Sure, an aspiring actor has little chance of making it big, but he or she tries all the same, because the rewards are so huge. The logic: You’ll never hit it big (or win the lottery) if you don’t give it a try (buy a lottery ticket).
Then there are the Plan B careers, the jobs people take when Plan A doesn’t pan out. Plan B jobs may not be flashy, but they really helped build the American dream. If you got a job at the factory and worked hard, you could build seniority, buy a house, live a middle-class lifestyle, and retire on a healthy pension. If your father or mother worked at the local plant, you probably could too. The plant provided the employment anchor for thriving communities.
As we all know, manufacturing has changed. Decades ago, an inexperienced person probably would start at a fab shop sweeping the floors or grinding metal. After so long, he or she would move on to a more technical position, like programming, setting up, and operating a press brake. That person then could make a career at mastering the skilled trade. He’d know that press brake inside and out. For that person, a manufacturing career was Plan A. Many others, though, would make a career in a non- or semiskilled position—the classic Plan B.
These days, as more shops adopt continuous improvement practices, they are cross-training workers. Some of the most valuable (and, ideally, well-paid) employees can do it all, working in a quest to reduce setup time and speed part flow. One multi-talented person (a water spider, in lean parlance) may prestage materials and tools—essential for reducing setup time and providing everything a multitalented (and again, well-paid) operator needs to start a job. Machine operators may work on press brakes one day then punch presses the next, moving wherever needed to open part-flow bottlenecks.
For many these days, manufacturing isn’t Plan B. For the best, it becomes a Plan A. It’s a passion.
But what about Plan B careers in manufacturing? If someone shows up and works hard, he should be paid well enough to support a family comfortably, even if he may not be incredibly engaged or passionate about the job. That’s the middle-class American dream, right?
As evident by recent wage surveys from the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, many companies in this industry continue to pay their good workers very well—but not all of them do. In fact, thefabricator.com blog has gotten plenty of comments from frustrated readers. One said he knew welding, but he worked at the local Walmart because the starting pay was only a little less.
Unlike a Walmart clerk, of course, a welder has a better chance at climbing the career ladder and making more money. U.S. manufacturing careers can be far more lucrative than those in other sectors. Thing is, it’s not a guarantee, even if that welder works hard and seemingly does everything he or she should do to get ahead. If the economy goes south, a company may need to lay off a talented employee who just was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Young people have grown up in a tumultuous employment environment, at least one more tumultuous than the job market of the 1950s. In fact, historians may look back at the latter half of the 20th century as an anomaly. The rest of the world was either in development or had its business infrastructure destroyed by war. Of course, the U.S. economy thrived and, with it, the American dream.
Maybe the American dream hasn’t died; maybe it simply has evolved. Today’s young workers may remember their father or mother being laid off from a good job at a large plant. If that happened to my parents, I’d have a difficult time trusting any employer. Still, people living in the right area of the country and who have in-demand technical skills can land a good job. They may not keep it forever, they may work for several companies over a career, but they probably will be successful. Success isn’t guaranteed, but in truth it never really has been for anyone.
Maybe knowledge and an engaged curiosity—eagerly growing, learning, and adapting to the times—provide the foundation of the modern American dream. In a sense, eagerness to learn and question the status quo is at the heart of continuous improvement efforts sprouting up at fabricators large and small. People who dream up better ways to get the job done are in more demand than ever.
A worker may get hired and laid off several times on the roller coaster of the new global economy, but once he or she learns something new and challenges the status quo, that person can change something for the better. No economic downturn can take that knowledge, experience, and curiosity away.