Up Front: Here In the Real World
By Brian J. Hogan
Presumably there is such a thing as the social value of work. Presumably, such social value can be calculated. It should be pretty clear that some types of work essentially fulfill personal goals. Other types of work ring through society, and influence many lives.
A poet, a ballet dancer, or a person who studies the culture of the Hittites may have a very satisfying life. And such occupations certainly don't have a negative effect on the neighbors. But more likely than not, that poet, dancer, or student of the ancient world will also not have a measurable positive impact on the society in which he or she dwells.
In contrast, people involved with the design, manufacture, and distribution of essential goods and services have a very positive effect on their societies. Consider a world without the agricultural products, energy sources, medical supplies, and machines that we all use every day. Not a pretty sight. My peasant ancestors may have found peace following the south end of a north-bound plowhorse—I have no wish to do so.
Yet when it comes to assigning social standing and prestige to fields of endeavor, this view of matters does not hold sway. Parents struggle to find the money to place kids into the great liberal arts universities, and the most crowded colleges at those schools are certainly not associated with fields such as medicine, the hard sciences, or agriculture. In fact, the side of the campus associated with the liberal arts tends to regard the technical colleges and departments as glorified trade schools, and may even push the "geeks" outward, to campuses and facilities located far from the "real" university.
Further, the social standing of young adults who go from high school to a job is almost always inferior to that of someone in the same age cohort who attends a four-year university. But the social value of that student's degree may never equal the social value of his high-school classmate's training as a welder, machinist, driller, or locomotive driver.
Manufacturing has very great and measurable social value. Too often, people in manufacturing either hesitate to defend their work, or assume its value must be obvious to all thinking people. But if manufacturing professionals don't speak up, it's unlikely anyone else will do so, given that the ignorant routinely decry manufacturing as polluting and antiquated (you've heard the term "rustbelt"). Secondly, not all people think—unless and until they are pushed to do so. Social value is the place where we can make a stand. To those who dismiss the value of manufacturing I say: over there they dance. Over here we produce your pacemakers, pharmaceuticals, cars, clothing, aircraft, energy, and food.
This article was first published in the February 2010 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.