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America’s blue-collar crisis threatens our way of life

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The nation’s bare store shelves, exorbitantly inflated prices for essential goods and services, packages arriving weeks or months late, and an alarming scarcity of skilled labor all are results of our blue-collar workforce crisis. Underlying current supply chain issues and fears of hyperinflation is a labor shortage that is seriously harming the American economy in nearly every industry. 

Transportation companies are short 33,000 truckers compared to before the pandemic. Nationwide there’s a 55 percent shortage of plumbers available for work, and electricians are also in seriously short supply. Meanwhile, construction firms can’t find enough qualified workers to complete jobs. The lack of skilled laborers is already being called the “next supply chain disruption.” All told, 77 percent of manufacturers report issues getting and attracting skilled workers.

Even as labor shortages drive up wages, many who left the workforce during the pandemic have yet to return. Being able to collect the same wages — or more — while staying home as they did when at work has given them little incentive to return. Economic measures that disincentivize labor were ushered in under the guise of COVID “safety” precautions at the beginning of 2020, but dragged on even after most states reopened and a safe vaccine was readily available. Generous federal unemployment bonuses, added to state-based unemployment, left millions at home collecting government checks while more than 10 million jobs remain unfilled. Residents in blue states such as Massachusetts and California received more than $3,000 on average in monthly unemployment checks.

In addition to unemployment payments, the expanded child tax credit sends families $300 per child per month. Rental assistance programs and expanded food stamps also have been implemented by many state governments. Combine these subsidies with issues that have been complicated by the pandemic, such as paying for child care, and the desire for many to work full time is no longer there. While expanding handouts may seem like a short-term panacea — after all, who wouldn’t want to give money for children? — the results already are being seen in significantly higher consumer prices and goods shortages.

Still, policies that incentivize workers to stay home are only a part of the blue-collar labor shortage story. Longer-term societal and academic trends have significantly shrunk the workforce size in critical sectors and exacerbated the current economic mess. Increasingly, a four-year college degree is viewed by parents as the best hope for children to enjoy a good living and dignified social worth. But in reality, the pursuit of liberal arts degrees at expensive state and private schools drives millions into crippling student loan debt, often with little in the way of high-paying job prospects after graduation. And as more students seek liberal arts degrees, the workforce is robbed of potential skilled labor.

A country cannot thrive without a robust blue-collar workforce. For urban and suburban workers who think that food simply comes from the supermarket, the situation is out of focus. The need for agricultural workers to plant and harvest, for dock workers offloading goods, and for truckers to bring needed materials across the nation is ever-present. The same can be said for skilled workers such as electricians, plumbers and contractors who keep America’s lights on, water flowing and infrastructure sound. We simply cannot eliminate large chunks of the American workforce and not expect the price and shortage issues we face today.

Immediate action must be taken to solve the blue-collar workforce crisis. Republicans have argued that they’re the party of the working man and woman. This is their opportunity to show it. Some success is being found in states with conservative governors, which saw a higher share of jobs return since fully discarding COVID mandates and halting most pandemic-related handouts.

Our education system also must more broadly encourage skills-based education. For many students, the degree on the wall often comes with increasingly unserviceable personal debt and fewer job openings than sweat equity positions. Meanwhile, certification programs and specialized degrees at colleges, vocational and trade schools can yield lucrative careers. Electricians and plumbers are in such high demand that some pull in six-figure salaries. Employees at the dock of Los Angeles can clear $100,000 a year with overtime. Starting truckers average over $70,000, and some are being paid expensive sign-on bonuses.

Results of the workforce crisis, such as bare shelves in stores, also show the need for domestic production. On the one hand, the supply chain issues are caused by a lack of workers. On the other, much of the issue of getting Chinese-produced goods off cargo ships would be reversed if the goods were produced domestically. With our trading partners in Canada and extensive use of fracking, North America has nearly every natural resource needed for at least some domestic autarky. Free trade should be to our advantage — through American exports, rather than by funding the rise of the Chinese Communist Party through our import dollars.  

Donald Trump’s campaigns for president often raised the question of whether blue-collar jobs can boom again in the United States. The 2021 crisis is proof that they must.  

Kristin Tate is a libertarian writer whose latest book is “How Do I Tax Thee? A Field Guide to the Great American Rip-Off.” Follow her on Twitter @KristinBTate.

Tags Blue-collar worker Donald Trump economy Labor shortage Skilled worker Unemployment

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