“Supply chain disruption” is something many Americans often hear these days. It is the explanation we receive when we face empty shelves in stores and things we assumed would always be there are suddenly sold out, and when we are told some of the items won’t be available this holiday season. The causes of supply chain disruption are many. But one of the main reasons is a persistent labor shortage, especially of blue-collar workers.
About 90 percent of the international trade of goods is moved through ocean shipping. In the United States, Long Beach and Los Angeles ports are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. imports. Thus, when these ports experience backlogs and goods are not moving as fast as they should at these ports, the rest of America will feel the pain of shortages.
As of last week, about 100 container ships are waiting to unload goods at the port of Long Beach and Los Angeles. It can take 8,000 trucks to unload a single container ship. A labor shortage is why these hundreds and thousands of containers filled with toys, shoes, clothes, electronics, and even raw materials are idling on the water.
The labor shortage has manifested in several areas. First, there are not enough workers at the ports to unload the containers. Second, the United States faces a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers, which means there are too few drivers to take the containers to warehouses and, later, take these goods from warehouses to stores and factories nationwide.
In the United States, about two-thirds of freight is transported by trucks. Chris Spear, president and chief executive officer of the American Trucking Associations, explained the importance of trucking in our supply chain this way: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a port in L.A. or Long Beach, or the last mile of delivery from a train to a warehouse in Wichita, you’re going to have to have a driver and a truck move that freight.”
Third, there is a shortage of workers in other areas too. We don’t have enough warehouse workers to unload incoming delivery trucks and load the outgoing ones. Executives at FedEx said more than 600,000 packages a day are being rerouted because of worker shortages at their warehouses. Additionally, stores are having a hard time finding enough workers to stock the shelves.
Physical Laborers Behind the Digital Economy
The main culprit of the current labor shortage is poor government policies. According to economist Richard M. Salsman, the labor shortage has been “both mandated (by shutdowns of ‘nonessential’ businesses) and subsidized (with lucrative and extended ‘jobless benefits’), which makes it difficult for many businesses to attract and hire labor of sufficient quantity, quality, reliability, and affordability.”
The end result of this labor shortage is that American consumers either have to pay much higher prices for goods, or have to wait a long time to get something, or won’t be able to find what they need or want at all.
In recent years, especially last year, many of us got spoiled by thinking that things just magically showed up at our doorstep with a few clicks on our keyboards, thanks to the digital economy. The supply chain disruption reminds us how much our so-called digital economy relies on physical labor — people who don’t sit behind a computer all day but work on jobs that demand physical effort.
Such workers may have to move around, bend over, lift something up, or stand on their feet for long hours throughout the day. Sometimes, their work requires them to keep odd hours while others enjoy leisure activities or soundly sleep.
The physical nature of their jobs may make their uniform dirty or make them sweat. At the end of their shifts, many feel their backs hurting, knees stiff, and fingers sore. They are often called manual labor or blue-collar workers. Their work is often under-appreciated and unnoticed — until things stop working.
Misperceptions of Blue-Collar Workers
There are plenty of misperceptions of blue-collar workers and the jobs they do. Many assume a blue-collar job doesn’t make much money, and a person has to get a college degree to live a financially successful life. In truth, some blue-collar workers earn much more than many college graduates.
For example, the average salary for a truck driver is $70,620 a year, and for owner operators, the average salary is $299,070, according to Indeed. In comparison, the latest data from ZipRecruiter, an online job site, shows the national average salary for college grads is $43,367, and some college grads make only $20,000. Additionally, today’s college grads take out $37,172 of student loan debt on average. It is fair to say that those blue-collar workers who make good money without the burden of student loans are on a far superior path to financial success than are many college grads.
Since many blue-collar jobs do not require a college degree, one popular misperception is that blue-collar workers are not intelligent, and doing their job requires few skills or little intelligence. That’s why you often hear blue-collar workers referred to as “no-skill” or “low-skill workers.” While it is true that some blue-collar jobs require little training, many of them, such as boilermakers, power-line installers, and gas plant operators, require extensive on-the-job training, an apprenticeship program, or a certification program.
AI Will Take White-Collar Jobs Too
Another widespread assumption is that in the digital economy, technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will make blue-collar workers obsolete. We have seen technology such as kiosks replace cashiers and robots replace waiters to serve food in restaurants.
However, Kai-Fu Lee, a venture capitalist and author of “AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future,” predicts that white-collar workers have more to worry about because AI will also quickly take over their jobs. He warns that “a lot of employees are going to feel like turkeys waiting for Thanksgiving.” According to Lee, however, AI cannot do everything, such as plumbing. No matter how technologically advanced a society is, it always will need good plumbers.
Unfortunately, for several decades, the leftists in this nation have been pushing for everyone to go to college as the only guarantee to economic mobility, while looking down on blue-collar workers. Mike Rowe, host of “Dirty Jobs,” sees such an approach as problematic.
He said: “I think the stigmas and stereotypes that keep so many people from pursuing a truly useful skill, begin with the mistaken belief that a four-year degree is somehow superior to all other forms of learning… We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist.”
He is right. Today, one in four Americans carry student loan debt, and in total they owe more than $1.73 trillion. Many college grads delay marriage and have a hard time saving for a house or their retirement due to student loan debt. Worse yet, many have no marketable skills, and their jobs are becoming obsolete because of technological advancement.
The current supply chain disruption reminds us how much the quality of our lives depends on underappreciated blue-collar workers. Hopefully, more people, especially young people, will realize that not everyone needs to go to college. Instead, some can have a meaningful and financially successful life by learning valuable skills that a society can’t live without.