Along with my petty obsession about the STEM shortage myth, I’m frequently puzzled by the common assertion that we need to send people into trade schools to solve our labor market woes. I find this to be a far less acute problem than STEM mythology, in part because it’s a less common of an argument, particularly among our chattering class, and also because there’s much less in the way of evidence contradicting this claim. But it still puzzles me. This argument has a lot of different flavors, but it tends to come down to the claim that we shouldn’t be sending everyone to college (I agree!) and that instead we should be pushing more people into skilled trades. Oftentimes this is encouraged as an apprenticeship model over a schooling model. What’s unclear is what evidence we have showing that this could significantly help our labor market.
So take this piece from James Fallows. Fallows, and emailers who support his point, call for more investment in technical or skilled trades. Fallows writes, “The importance of skilled technical jobs, from machinists to construction engineers, is they’re generally interesting in themselves, they’re less likely to be outsourced or ‘de-skilled’ than even some white-collar work, and they are better paid than retail or low-end service work.” The first point I’m happy to accept. The second two points seem intuitively correct to me, but where’s the evidence, exactly? And what are we to make of these Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, in a chart shared by CNN early last year?
Now I understand that this data pulls from somewhat small sample sizes in some instances (although see my usual caveat about that). I don’t claim that this chart is totally dispositive. But as with the STEM talk, I find there’s far more in the way of narrative force behind these claims than actual evidence. Now it’s tricky to say what exactly the trades or skilled trades are. But you’ll see a couple things here. First, lots of things we might think of as drawing from an apprenticeship model are hugely susceptible to the housing market. Professions like structural iron and steel worker or plasterer are going to face great uncertainty and risk as long as the housing markets are crazy. Now maybe those aren’t the kind of technical jobs Fallows is referring to. But surely communications equipment operator and solar photovoltaic installer count, and it’s not looking good for them.
Fallows is a great writer and I don’t mean to be too critical here. Like I said, I’m not convinced that pushing people into the trades is a bad idea, in the way I’m convinced there’s no STEM shortage. But the affirmative case appears entirely unmade to me. And I worry because it has narrative appeal in a way similar to the STEM talk– we need to put our young people back to work, making things, using their hands, without any fancy college degrees!– and as with the notion of a STEM shortage this narrative appeal could keep us from paying attention to the actual data. What’s more, it’s unclear if it’s ever a good idea to push people into a particular narrow range of occupations, because then people rush into them and… there stops being any shortage and advantage for labor. There was probably a nursing shortage, but then everybody said “there’s a nursing shortage, get certified!” and now nurses can’t get jobs. That’s no way to run an economy.
My desires are twofold. First, that we be very careful when making claims about the labor market of the future without reference to real empirical data. Second, that we stop saying “the problem is you went into X field” altogether. Individual workers are not responsible for the soft labor market and great disadvantage workers are under now. Those are the product of macroeconomic conditions– inadequate aggregate demand, outsourcing, and the merciless march of automation. What’s needed is not to try and read the tea leaves and guess which fields might reward some slice of our workforce now, but to redefine our attitude towards work and material security through the institution of some sort of guaranteed minimum income.