The other day I had a conversation with my boss, Marty, the co-owner of the company, about the current labor market. As usual, no matter the overall economic situation, we seem to struggle to find good, qualified, willing people to fill our job orders. It’s a perplexing and frustrating problem. During our conversation, Marty started harking back to the late 70s and early 80s, when he was a teenager. Back then, he recalled, there really wasn’t an influx of Mexicans or other foreign workers to help the local farmers pick their crops.
I’ll be honest – I was shocked. How on earth did they manage? I mean, without imported foreign workers to do the ‘jobs Americans won’t do,’ we all know the crops would rot in the fields, grocery store shelves would be empty, and people would starve in the streets while trying to use their smartphones to order pizza that will never be delivered (hey, no farms, no ingredients!).
Yet, in the age before Internet and Wi-Fi, in a time as primitive to us in many ways as the horse and buggy days were to them, somehow the crops got picked, the shelves got stocked and, despite a slight hiccup during the Carter administration, the people generally went about their days with full bellies.
You see, back then, according to my boss and basically anybody else who lived during that time and any time before, there weren’t really any jobs Americans wouldn’t do. Who did those jobs, you ask? Why, teenagers did! After school, during the harvest season, Marty and his friends would go to the local farm, pick fruit or vegetables for a few hours, and get paid at the end of the day. (The belly full of strawberries or blueberries was apparently a bonus of some sort.) I wondered if it hurt his self-esteem for him to be seen doing menial work like this. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing? Wouldn’t he need years of therapy to recover from such humiliation? After slapping me across the face with a horse whip (apparently rich people these days have horses), he told me in no uncertain terms that working hard and earning money at an early age helped build his character to what it is today.
With a much clearer, albeit a bit sore, head (OK, he didn’t really slap me, but he should have!) I considered the problem of not just our labor shortage, but the shortage evidenced by the help wanted signs posted on fast food windows all across our town and thousands of others, a labor shortage that flies in the face of the high unemployment numbers of the past several years, numbers which shockingly don’t even take into account the millions upon millions who give up looking for work every quarter. Sure, we’ve got some low paying, low-skill jobs, but we’re even having problems filling our better ones, the ones that eventually lead to a solid industrial career – if only people were willing to start at the bottom.
I don’t have all the answers, but it does seem like the main thing missing from the working world today is the universal recognition of the fact that everybody has to start somewhere. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a farm picking tomatoes, or a fast food restaurant, or a temp job doing light assembly in a factory, but it is typically something today’s workforce has, inexplicably, considered ‘beneath them.’ And so corporations and the politicians who serve them throw open our borders to let in people who aren’t too proud to make an honest living while Americans rack up months and months of unemployment, all the while making them increasingly unemployable. Because, despite what the EEOC wants to dictate to HR managers across the country, time spent working – no matter what that work is – is always better than time spent unemployed.
It’s not all our fault. After all, if the government will give us a check to stay home or our parents will take care of us until we’re 40, most of us would probably choose to stay home. Hey, when you compare a few hours of World of Warcraft with a few hours of toiling in the hot sun, it’s not hard to pick a winner. Sadly, unless trends change, eventually we are going to lose much more than our economy – we are going to lose our country.
I get that most people don’t want to pick strawberries, flip burgers, or work as a non-skilled temp in a factory forever. Heck, I wouldn’t want to, either! But if society really understood and taught the value and honor of work, no matter what it is – that work gives you self-esteem, puts food on the table and clothes on your back, that climbing the ladder of work, regardless of the rung where you begin, leads to skills, values, and character traits that build upon one another and enables you to get to that next level, and the next, and the next one after that — we’d all be better off.
That’s how a guy who once picked strawberries in a field with his friends eventually came to own his own company.
This article originally appeared on StaffingTalk.com.