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Redefining 'Good' Jobs in the New Economic Environment

There are a lot of issues behind the General Motors strike, but to many people the story is pretty simple: It's about how greedy companies are shipping "good" jobs abroad, leaving our workers with opportunities only in hamburger flipping.

This kind of talk, which we hear from some spokesmen on both the political left and right, is disconnected from reality. Right now the US economy is facing a significant labor shortage. Average wages are rising. There are plenty of good paying jobs to go around.

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Then what's all the talk about?

It's actually not about the quality or quantity of jobs or the rate of pay. Rather it's about the type of jobs and a belief about what constitutes dignified labor.

In this view of life, manufacturing jobs are elevated; service and information management jobs, demeaned. It's time for us to change our definitions.

The celebration of industrial production and the labor that produces it has its roots in the early part of this century. America rose to greatness as a manufacturer of Model-T cars, electric lights, home appliances, and high tech weaponry. These were symbols of American preeminence. Manufacturing labor, at first exploited, became over time the example of the "worker" who built America. The rhetoric of trade unionism glorified in many ways quite rightly the contribution of this kind of labor. By the middle of the 20th century, when people thought of jobs in this country, auto workers and steel workers came to mind. These were the "good jobs" that were, and to some people still are, worth protecting.

But this romantic view of the past actually retards growth in the present. Saving - and hence overvaluing - manufacturing jobs only keeps us from developing the kinds of industries where we now excel. Indeed, it holds back labor from getting the kind of training individuals need to compete in the new economic environment. America now has advantages in information and service industries, and needs workers badly.

Displaced manufacturing workers can and should be retrained for these businesses. Of course, accounting, marketing, financial management, and even computer programming don't have the kind of history that steelmaking does, and an office cubicle seems pretty pallid next to a blast furnace. But these service jobs are valuable pursuits that help us organize our lives and understand our choices. There is as much dignity in this form of labor as in the other kind.

This is not to say that America should give up manufacturing entirely. We clearly produce a wide range of excellent products from electronics to aircraft to pharmaceuticals in much demand throughout the world. American manufacturing workers are still highly esteemed, and German and Japanese auto makers are among the international businesses that have been moving production onto our shores.

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But clearly, the trend is toward an economy dominated by information and service industries where job growth has been explosive. For those who have lost their manufacturing jobs, change might be difficult and at times painful. But change is part of a dynamic and productive economy. We should do our utmost to minimize the problems of individuals, but the solution does not lie in hanging onto a diminishing past.

Those who believe that American businesses are destroying the ability of Americans to earn a decent wage have it all wrong. As an economy, we haven't lost any "good" jobs, to Mexico or Asia or anywhere else. We have instead created millions of them. The definition of what constitutes a good job has changed; the skills required have changed. But there are large and growing numbers of good jobs.

We just have to learn to see them that way.

* Peter Z. Grossman is a professor of economics at Butler University in Indianapolis. His most recent book is "Introduction to Energy: Resources, Technology and Society" (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

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