Well, ok, but why did this change take place? Why don't more Harvard grads want to work for manufacturing firms? This isn't even a hard question. The answer is that Harvard grads don't go to work for manufacturing firms because those firms pay less and offer less job security and less prospect of advancement than finance or consulting. And why is that? Because American firms no longer lead the world in most kinds of manufacturing. And why is that? Because over the past 30 years many, many American firms have focused on cutting costs to keep their profits high rather than investing in new technologies and processes, with the result that American manufacturing firms do more manufacturing overseas than in the US. And these changes have been encouraged and abetted by the sort of pro-business politicians Brooks supports. To see a possible alternative you only have to look at Germany, where the manufacturing sector, abetted by strongly pro-labor governments, still dominates the economy. It simply baffles me that Brooks doesn't see the connections between his own free market politics and the cultural changes he likes to blame for everything bad.
The shift is evident at all levels of society. First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.
It would be embarrassing or at least countercultural for an Ivy League grad to go to Akron and work for a small manufacturing company. By contrast, in 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard graduates and 43 percent of female graduates went into finance and consulting.
Brooks is also concerned about the mismatch in skills between the American work force and the jobs available:
These office workers did not want their children regressing back to the working class, so you saw an explosion of communications majors and a shortage of high-skill technical workers. One of the perversities of this recession is that as the unemployment rate has risen, the job vacancy rate has risen, too. Manufacturing firms can’t find skilled machinists. Narayana Kocherlakota of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank calculates that if we had a normal match between the skills workers possess and the skills employers require, then the unemployment rate would be 6.5 percent, not 9.6 percent.Why don't more Americans want their children to be machinists? Because American manufacturing firms treat their skilled workers like expendable parts, laying them off whenever sales fall a little bit. People want job security, and they have noticed that firms have been much quicker to lay off blue collar than white collar employees. A man who has been laid off from his factory while the CEO gives himself a raise is not going to want his children to be factory workers. In Germany and Japan, where big companies give their skilled workers lifetime job security, they have no shortage of machinists.
And if companies can't find skilled workers, why don't they hire unskilled workers and train them? Where does Brooks think the machinists of the industrial revolution learned their skills? On the job, all of them. Modern companies don't hire unskilled people and train them to be machinists because of the same thinking that causes them to lay off machinists when their profits fall: because they think of their workers as interchangeable parts, not a vital asset.
Some of this may be changing in America. The status of white collar workers has certainly been falling. Of late, big companies have been looking first at white collar jobs when they want to cut staff, and as the country becomes more aware of the tedium of cubicle life, and as blue collar salaries rise because of the shortages Brooks mentions, blue collar life may be gaining status again. We'll see. But all the cultural changes Brooks laments have very simple economic causes. In a capitalist world, people go where the money is -- or, if the ways money is made come to see too crass to them, they skip out on the system and go into non-profit activism. It is just silly to blame the declining appeal of skilled work on a cultural change when the salaries of investment bankers and entertainers soar and those of skilled workers gradually decline.