When Did “Labor” Become A Dirty Word?

By on November 12, 2015
Hard Hat and a Hammer

“But there’s nothing wrong with a hard hat and a hammer
Kind of glue that sticks this world together
Hands of steel and cradle of the Promised Land
God bless the working man.”
– Alan Jackson

Country singer and song writer Alan Jackson’s ode to the working man, “Hard Hat and a Hammer,” made the Top 20 of country songs in 2010. Part of its rise to the top of the charts can be attributed to Jackson’s skills as a singer. That said, I’d suggest that an even more potent force brought it to the Top 20. And what was that? An often unspoken recognition of the fact that “Labor” has, for many people, become a dirty word. Jackson’s lyrics are a rather forlorn plea for the return of respect in our country for folks who wear hard hats and carry hammers.

He sings, “But there’s nothing wrong with a hard hat and a hammer.” Of course there isn’t, you may be thinking. If this is the case, you’re in the minority.

The fact is that for many people, “labor” has become a dirty word.

As just one example of this mindset, many parents would be distressed if their daughters and sons were to become carpenters, steel workers, electricians, brick layers, workers on an assembly line, etc. If they were asked by friends, “What college will your son be attending?” and had to say, “Bill’s in the Carpenter’s Apprentice Program,” they’d be genuinely embarrassed. Many would feel compelled to come up with some convoluted explanation of their son’s descent down what they perceive as lower steps on the social ladder as well as his entry into economic darkness.

Yes, if Jackson’s words, “But there’s nothing wrong” sound more than a trifle defensive there’s a reason for it.

Here’s one more example of this mindset at work. Several years ago, the CEO of a midsized manufacturing company approached the superintendent of a large suburban school district to solicit his help in making the district’s students aware of his company’s widely acclaimed apprentice program. As I heard the story about this encounter told the superintendent politely informed the CEO that “all of our district’s students are college bound. Your program isn’t really relevant to us.”

Of course what this superintendent said is absolutely untrue. That being the case, why did he say it? He said it for one simple reason. Representing a counter text for Jackson’s lyrics, he was thinking, “But there’s something wrong with a hard hat and a hammer.”

This mindset represents a significant barrier to our country’s economic and social health. Jackson’s lyrics are right on target when they observe that a hard hat and a hammer are the “kind of glue that sticks the world together.”

Without labor, nothing else happens. Buildings, bridges, and homes aren’t built. Every physical object that we touch was made by a laborer.

This being the case, the work of the “laborer” is the very heartbeat of our country. No labor. No heartbeat. No country.

We all need to have greatly increased respect for the work done by those fellow citizens of ours who wear hard hats and carry hammers.

And this showing of respect needs to carry over to the work environment. Often it doesn’t. I’ve seen managers whose disdain for workers on the line was only barely disguised. In fact, their attempts to disguise it didn’t work. Workers knew they weren’t respected by management. And how did they react? Marginal commitment to quality and productivity. Us vs. them mindset. Very low levels of engagement in the work they were doing. Little was expected on them and they gave little.

Taiichi Ohno, chief architect of the Toyota Production System and father of Lean manufacturing, goes right to the heart of this issue when he says, “The Toyota Production System says there is no limit to people’s creativity. People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think’.”

What greater show of respect could there possibly be than to say, “We respect your creativity and we need your thoughts.” Messages like this drive increased worker engagement. Higher morale. Higher productivity. All the ingredients of what it takes to build a healthy, vibrant economy.

Yes, Alan Jackson, we should all say together, “God bless the working man…and woman.” What they do is glue that sticks this world together.

St. Louis Community College recognizes the vital role apprenticeship programs play in giving young men and women entry into those “hard hat and hammer” jobs upon which our economy depends. To facilitate the growth of apprenticeship programs, the college will be hosting a program on December 2nd from 7:30 – 10:30 a.m. at our Center for Workforce Innovation, 3344 Pershall Road in Ferguson, Missouri. You’re invited to this important event – find out more and RSVP now.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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