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Halsey Frank: Labor data dissonance

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I completed another plumbing project this past weekend. The toilet in our master bathroom had been leaking for a while. I had been procrastinating. It had been making that steady, nagging sound that signaled we were wasting water. I finally got around to it. Replaced the old fill valve with a new Korky. It was very satisfying.

I learned rudimentary plumbing while I was in high school. During summers, I worked as a handyman on an island, trying to keep the various systems operating, and as an intern in the engineering department of an industrial bakery, where one of my responsibilities was helping to keep the sewerage treatment plant operating properly.

The toilet valve was the second plumbing project this summer. The first was replacing a ¾ hp exterior pump. I tried unsuccessfully to find a plumber to do the job. Ultimately, I went online, corresponded with an expert, determined the right size pump, diagramed the fittings needed, went to Portland Plastic Pipe (where they were very accommodating), bought more than I should, cut and glued, pugged it in, turned it on, and presto, running water!

It gives me some assurance that should all else fail, I have a useful and hopefully marketable skill. But there are limits to my willingness and ability. We have a couple of electrical projects that need doing. A circuit has been shorted for months, but I am not confident of my ability to troubleshoot it. I haven’t been able to find an electrician to do the job. It’s frustrating, and it’s not an isolated problem.

Curiously, the lead of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) July 8 news release with regard to the June 2022 employment situation is that the number of persons employed and the unemployment rate have largely rebounded to their pre-pandemic (February 2020) levels. But that isn’t consistent with my experience.

I know several contractors who are swamped with work but don’t have the workers to do the jobs. Either they can’t find people to work at all, or the ones that they do find work for a couple of weeks and then quit, sometimes without any advance notice, and sometimes leaving their tools behind. 

Everywhere I go, I see employers who can’t find employees. Restaurants have closed or reduced their hours because they don’t have people to wait tables. The supermarkets and big box stores have removed staffed checkout lines and replaced them with automated ones. There are help wanted signs all over the place.

The Press Herald reports that community colleges are responding to the severe labor shortage by expanding their short-term workforce certificate and training programs in fields such as welding, 3D printing, healthcare, and information technology. It says that shortage was caused by the pandemic which changed how people viewed work and led to mass resignations. The BLS reports that 2.1 million people were unable to work in June because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic.

The pandemic definitely changed peoples’ attitude toward work. In my experience, fear of the virus kept people from coming into work.

But, attitudes toward work had been in flux for a while. Prior to the pandemic, the trend was toward a concept of work-life balance in which there was little distinction between work and home life.

Workplaces were made to seem more like homes with amenities like coffee bars, juicer stations, video games, and lounge furniture, while homes became places where people worked, with high-speed internet connections and dual monitors. There was little difference between the two. That wasn’t consistent with my concept of work-life balance. The goal for me was to focus on work while I was at the office and try to leave it there when I left.

The Press Herald seems to take the view that the goal of work is to make as much money as possible and thereby resolve inequities, and that the goal of education is to get the highest paying job possible (“higher degrees lead to higher incomes”). 

That’s a pretty narrow view. Money isn’t everything. Not everyone can or should be a CEO. There is something to be said for doing productive work that you enjoy and that provides a valuable good or service to others, and something to be said for education that enables you to appreciate life. Provide people with a range of options in both areas, and the freedom and opportunity to choose.

About Halsey Frank

Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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