Monday, June 13, 2011

SERVICE VS. MANUFACTURING JOBS: OVERCOMING THE PERCEPTION BARRIER

It’s no secret that the food and service industry is doing quite well these days.  A twenty-something fresh from moving into his or her first apartment finds a favorite restaurant or café down the corner (as opposed to the local US manufacturer who may not be so easy to locate) and quickly realizes it’s the most immediate option for steady income.  Grocery chains like Trader Joe’s and Gelson’s have caught on to Starbucks’ recruiting middle-class youth for employment with the trump card of benefits and health plans and have used it successfully. 

With short and flexible hours available, I could pull a morning barista shift at the nearby hipster café (where they charge five dollars for the labor of pouring the froth just so it makes a little heart in your espresso), get out at noon, have a few hours to enjoy myself with the finer things in life like Twitter or World of Warcraft, and then wrap up the evening with a night shift bartending at my local Fuddruckers.  If all goes well, I could come home with two hundred dollars total in tips alone for the day.

Yes, service provides the fuel to immediate income and a flexible, stable lifestyle   Of course, being in my second decade, I don’t really know what “stability” is.  If I did, I’d never look at having two jobs in the service business as stable.  In fact, back when the American economy was supposedly all hunky-dory in 2006, the Food Sector still had a 56.4% turnover rate.  In a job market that depends on the average consumer having a little extra cash to spend on a night out or an extra bottle of wine, there’s no such thing as “job security”, especially now.  Not only that, most service jobs require all employees to be up close and personal with the customer.  Most people know how to carry a tray, many can deduce a 20% tip, but there are precious few of us out there who know how to deal with our fellow man when he’s hungry, impatient, and demanding to know why there isn’t a line of busboys continuously refilling his bread basket. 

Manufacturing, on the other hand, doesn’t demand as much on the diplomatic side and while it may get a bad rap these days by pundits and comedians, no other industry has been able to sustain its productivity so consistently.  Unlike food and services which is seasonal in its customer base, there’s always a relatively high demand for durable goods like computers, automated devices or engine parts year-round.  Good luck trying to sell all that authentic European gelato when winter comes rolling in, or selling out the beer in the middle of July when hockey and basketball are over, football is in camp and baseball is…well…baseball.  And those tips I brought home?  Well I better pray I keep running into generous people and that I never get in a bad mood at work, because that extra income is masking my minimum wage-to $10 an hour rate.  Yes, no one tips a factory worker for making sure their air purifier lasts as long as advertised, but making a decent rate plus benefits, he’s not exactly calling them to make sure they had no trouble opening the box either.
After expressing so much passion about alternative energy, I asked the barista at my local café why he didn’t quit his job making liquid cocaine for the rush hour and go work in a solar panel plant outside of LA.  He laughed and said “I dunno.  This job sucks, but it’s better than being a slave in some gulag lifting [lazy expletive] all day.”  I suspect this is the only barrier the manufacturing sector needs to break down to get those potential employees; the perception barrier.  The Obama generation is inclusive and collaborative, yet ironically seems to view factories as crude Cold War relics, where everyone wears gray jumpsuits and solemnly carries massive hunks of steel parts while vats of liquid iron boil all around them.  “Labor isn’t my ‘thing’, man” my barista continued, “I’m really an idea person”.   Wonderful!  I explained to him two-thirds of the research and development in this country stems from the manufacturing sector.  Innovation?  Improving on what came before you?  That’s what makes the industry go.  “Honestly”, I raised my eyebrow at him, “how much can you really improve the act of running hot water through espresso grinds?”

This is where a job in making durable goods will always beat out the lure of the quick-fix service gig.  It appeals to a different, but self-affirming life priority; developing and honing a personal craft.  It’s an instinct we’ve had since the days of Homo Erectus, to find a task in this world and do it better and longer than anyone else.  Part of what made Henry Ford’s little experiment so successful was not just the amount of people who took pride in owning an automobile, but also the amount who took pride in making one.  A lasting product that not only made you and your bosses money, but seemed to move the world into the next age of man.  Maybe a job in services allows for more World of Warcraft, but the sooner a young adult gets into manufacturing, the sooner a craftsman enters the world.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company, Inc.

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