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Shift from hard labor blamed on economy, attitudes

Education officials trying to address change

POSTED: January 22, 2012 12:20 a.m.

America has a labor conundrum: Its unemployment rate continues to rise and yet some industries can't find enough workers.

"Forty years ago, people understood that sweat and dirt were the hallmarks of important work. Today, that understanding has faded," Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" said in a January 2009 letter to President Barack Obama.

"Somewhere in our economy's massive transition from manufacturing to financial services, we have forsaken skilled labor, along with many aspects of our traditional work ethic."

Education officials are trying to address the shift with programs such as Go Build Georgia, pushed by Rowe and Gov. Nathan Deal. It seeks to educate students about skilled trades in the construction and trucking industries, and the state's new focus on career pathways for middle and high school students.

The shift away from hard labor goes back decades. Its causes are varied: the economy, societal mindsets and Hollywood portrayals of skilled trades. But the effect in many cases was the same: Industries turned to migrant or immigrant workers instead of domestic.

"It's a worldwide situation that as a country progresses economically, less of its homegrown natives want to do the back-breaking labor," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Georgia.

Farmers of labor-intensive crops, such as blackberries, peaches and other produce, know that firsthand.

"Ten years ago, we didn't have Mexicans working on our farms. We used to hire teenage guys. But now school starts back so early and gets out so late and we're diversifying our crops, but those guys are still in school," said Drew Echols, farm manager at Jaemor Farms in Alto.

"I don't know any other way to say it, but I tried white people. It doesn't work. The work ethics in the white community are almost gone as far as physical, manual labor. People just don't want to do it."

In the poultry industry, for example, the domestic workforce can't keep up with the pace of assembly lines, said Tom Hensley, president of Fieldale Farms.

The company has about 50 percent domestic workers now, but the turnover is incomparable to before immigration laws. Plus, only about 10 percent of American applicants pass drug tests in Fieldale's zero-tolerance workplace.

"We hire over 100 people a week because people quit. People come to work and they'll work a morning, go out for lunch and won't come back," he said. "It's very difficult to operate a manufacturing process when you're constantly replacing, retraining and there's new faces."

Bill Brim, a vegetable producer in Tifton, attributed the lack of work ethic to America's dependence on technology instead of physical activity.

"There's a social network to provide for people when they don't work," Hensley said. "These folks who come to us and work a day or half a day, they have a social network of EBT and all kinds of stuff that protects them. They're not going to go hungry and they'll survive without working."

For foreign workers however, all they know is work, he said. They're used to the home country moniker of not working equals not eating.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said the idea that Americans would do more hard labor if it paid more is a myth. Many producers who participated in the Report on Agriculture Labor reported paying above minimum wage to workers, and some are required by law to pay more than $9 an hour.

No matter the cause, Rowe said to Obama, there needs to be a change.

"They are simply not celebrated," Rowe said. "People often tell me that ‘Dirty Jobs' reminds them of a time when work was not seen as a thing to avoid. When skilled tradesmen were seen as role models and a paycheck was not the only benefit of a job well done. We need to recapture that sentiment."

 



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