The jobs tide threatens an American industrial tsunami

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“We don’t build that here anymore.” The words hung in the air like fog. I heard the same statement repeated by many of the small businesses we profiled on the “John Ratzenberger’s Made in America” series on Travel Channel.

Despite amazing innovations and inspired workers, the tragic reality is that American industry and trades are under assault from within — we don’t have enough skilled workers to make America work anymore. Many companies are literally begging workers to come on board, offering well-paying, high-skilled work and training just to stay afloat.

The most popular phrase in today’s political lexicon is “job creation.” Americans of all persuasions are demanding that something be done about jobs. Seeking a fast fix, leaders in Washington and in the states are offering up tax cuts, low interest rates, and the promise of “green jobs,” all of which have some merit.

But in an American economy that’s losing its industrial base, “fast fixes” won’t prevent the coming tide of job loss and the entire culture of American productivity that goes with skilled work. The impact will be devastating.

The average age of a skilled worker in the U.S. is 55. Credible statistics from the U.S. Labor Department and elsewhere suggest that somewhere between 3 million and 15 million jobs go unfilled due to skilled worker shortages. Every major sector is affected, from crane operators and welders to high-tech producers and health care providers. We’re talking about trillions of lost dollars and a repositioning of America as a debtor-consumer, rather than the global leader-producer. This is the perfect storm.

Some critics have said that the American economy is too resilient to fold, and that we will innovate our way out of the “old” manufacturing economy and into a bright and shiny future in which Americans will find new ways to work and produce. I enjoy “first principle” discussions as much as the next guy. But these discussions have little value when America is staring down the barrel of a failing economy, crumbling infrastructure, and a workforce made up of college graduates and unskilled labor.

I prefer to focus on what is, rather than what might be. The warning lights are blinking on overdrive — America is in trouble. We need a long-term effort to educate, train, and deploy America’s skilled workforce. We have very little time to get this right.

We are currently producing a documentary and education program, “Industrial Tsunami,” for national release in early 2012. In “Industrial Tsunami,” I will showcase programs across the nation that are providing hands-on, meaningful training to a new generation of Americans. There are some terrific efforts underway, primarily in the private sector, to bring skills to young people. Bradley Tech high school in Milwaukee is a prime example — high-tech and practical skills taught by professionals alongside excellent academics. This is promising. But there’s more that needs to be done to right the ship.

It starts with kids. We must foster the love of tinkering and the self-reliance and creativity that come with it. The old “shop class” model has essentially disappeared. Let’s develop and promote hands-on learning at home and in schools.

Government needs to help; in some respects, it can do so best by simply getting out of the way. Too often, regulations are disconnected from good intentions and become economic roadblocks with little social value. Add to that a lawsuit-crazy culture that makes every job and activity a liability waiting to happen. Government policies that drive young people into a “college or failure” mindset make skilled work career choices a practical impossibility.

We must also expect and demand that our media culture change its portrayals of skilled work and workers. Workers were once honored as the backbone of America in our movies and books. In today’s celebrity-driven media, however, skilled work is demeaned and skilled workers are often portrayed as a grimy cautionary tale. Who’d want a job like that?

The stakes are too high to hope for a changing economy that will innovate and create fast enough to offset our shrinking skilled work-reliant manufacturing, construction, and infrastructure building and maintenance industries. We face an epic challenge, but it’s also an unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of the need for skilled work and workers. These jobs exist today, and they don’t require billions in “stimulus” to develop down the road. Note to lawmakers and policymakers across America: The window of opportunity is closing fast. Will America get to high ground before the Industrial Tsunami hits?

John Ratzenberger is an actor, author, Center for America Board member and advocate for America’s skilled workers. He is currently producing a documentary and education program, “Industrial Tsunami,” on the devastating loss of skilled workers and its impact on American prosperity and culture.