"The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work." - Mike Rowe
Here at Bright Agrotech, we talk to all sorts of people from all walks of life. We talk to doctors and school teachers; investors and construction workers. What seems to bring us together is a strong love of growing things, and an interest in community-based food systems. We hope that these themes will continue to unify people for years to come.
Interest in community-based food systems could be threatened by lack of momentum in younger generations.
Right now we have an agricultural system focused on larger, industrial scale operations, and an aging workforce (the average farmer is 57 years old). As the nations' farmers begin to retire, we are wondering who will fill their shoes. Our food system is up for grabs. So my question is: who will teach our kids about the value of their local food system?
While many educators have shown great determination to involve these topics in their teaching, the value of local food systems is not required in most curricula. I am not counting on our high schools or colleges to do it. In his testimony to the U.S. Senate, this is how Mike Rowe put it:
"In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.
"In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of 'higher education' to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled 'alternative.' Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as 'vocational consolation prizes,' best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of 'shovel ready' jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.
Ouch. I think Mike may have hit a nerve. If you are not familiar with his work, he is the man behind Dirty Jobs, on the Discovery Channel (the show is no longer on the air). He was brought in to speak to the United States senate because they were wondering how we could have so many available positions in skilled labor, and yet no one to fill them. The interesting thing about these folks is that they are routinely very happy in their work. They have a job to do, and they enjoy doing it. In many cases, they are paid very well.
We Assume that Hard Manual Labor is Less Dignified than Office Work
When we try to get at the root of the problem, we often find that there are complex social pressures in play. We assume that the plumber or mechanic is less dignified than the knowledge worker. In some cases, we have an expectation that all students will be "world changers". There is nothing wrong with aiming high, but sometimes these expectations are setting our youth up for failure. Here is how Mike Rowe describes this dynamic. This is an interview with Nick Gillespie, of Reason TV.
Nick: What are the roots of the demonization or de-prioritization of blue collar work?
Mike: I think it’s fear. I mean, you’ve got kids, right?
Nick: Yes I do.
Mike: So, its gotta be very scary to not have a really specific answer to questions like “what’s the best path, Dad?” You know. And to have someone tell you in a fairly convincing way that there is an answer to that question. That must be very comforting. And it must be very comforting to pass that certainty on to your kid too. “Here’s what you need to do. You need to work hard in school and you need to study”. And it’s not bad advice. It’s just that - like I said before - it always goes too far.
When it comes to farm work, perhaps no one has said it better than Wendell Berry. Historian Richard White says Berry is "the environmental writer who has most thoughtfully tried to come to terms with labor" and "one of the few environmental writers who takes work seriously." In a lecture at Yale University, Berry was asked how we have discouraged young people from considering farming as a vocation. Here is his response:
"How has it happened? It happened with the help maybe first of all, with the depreciation of the social regard for farming. People had learned to put 'just' in front of the name of their occupation: ‘I’m just a farmer’. One of the most disconcerting things I’ve heard in my life at public meetings is to hear perfectly intelligent people stand up and say 'I’m just a farmer, but…' and then say something really worthwhile.” So you have that."
Getting rid of the "just a farmer" mentality
The first step to solving this problem is a simple conversation. And if we can start that conversation with a few comments today, then that's all the better.
So tell me: What do you think? Do you have to go to college to be successful? Have we lost our values for hard work? Are we missing something by not encouraging our kids to consider skilled labor positions?
Should we be providing more college alternatives closer to home like trade schools, online learning, and apprentice programs, instead of sending our kids off to corporate careers?