Succession: The Real-Life Crisis, Not the HBO Series
Many of us were riveted by the Roys and their myriad dysfunctional dramas on HBO’s hit series Succession. While we eagerly await season three of the behind-the-scenes media empire drama, a real crisis is unfolding in the American economy. I know this from firsthand experience, but also from recent data and policy issues making business news headlines.
I have a country house. Toys, too—boats, cars, a motor scooter. Over several decades, these objects have fostered relationships with carpenters, masons, roofers, electricians (both land and marine), painters, plumbers, auto mechanics, boat mechanics and landscapers.
The one common denominator of these business owners? They cannot find anyone to take over when they retire. Almost all of them work alone or with labor that is not able to succeed them. Over the years, I have repeatedly asked why this is so.
“It’s too hard to find anyone interested in being a plumber.” (Fill in with “carpenter,” etc.)
“Way too expensive to train someone. Plus, I have to pay worker’s comp, social security, payroll tax and then they often quit in a year.”
“No one wants to do this trade for life anymore.”
“My teens would rather be TikTok micro-influencers.”
The local papers run ‘Help Wanted’ ads 52 weeks a year for marine mechanics, electricians, plumber’s assistants and licensed heating technicians. These are all high-wage jobs; some of these skilled tradesmen make well over six figures.
Recently, several nonprofits joined forces with academia and the corporate world to study the situation. They found that 30 million low-wage workers (for example, at Walmart or McDonald’s) have the ability to earn 70 percent more income if they had the right training, either in their current field or a new one.
One of the key findings was that some jobs currently requiring a college degree actually don’t need one. Companies should “hire… based on skills rather than degrees as a matter of fairness and economic efficiency. For example, computer technicians often earn more than $75,000/year. This job should not require college.”
Bestselling author David Goodhart’s recent book, Head, Hand, Heart directly addresses the entire range of issues. He goes into society’s biases against working in a trade by arguing that we wrongly prioritize and even idolize the wrong kind of work. According to him, there’s more than equal value in working with your head (adjunct professor), your hands (motorcycle mechanic) or your heart (cheesemaker).
In his view, the problem is that society admires and rewards the quant currency trader who programs a path to riches by arbitraging the Turkish lira against the Canadian loonie. How useful to society is that? Why should that person live in Greenwich, Connecticut?
To some degree this mispricing of occupational status has been challenged by COVID-19. Clearly someone who can keep our lights on, computer functioning or home warm—not to mention take our blood oxygen—has been properly deemed more “essential” than, for example, a plastic surgeon who can tighten a neck fold.
Progress is slowly being made. The same study advocating for training to obtain higher-wage jobs, pointed out that foundations like Markle are working with companies including AT&T, Kaiser Permanente, Microsoft and others on apprenticeship programs.
Congress is not unaware of this worker/job misalignment. The House recently passed an amendment to the National Apprenticeship Act that streamlines cumbersome rules and incentivizes businesses to take on trainees. It awaits Senate action.
It would be smart to rethink how we view and train our workforce for another reason. The inequality gap needs to be narrowed. The chorus of economists and political commentators telling us this is the issue for our society grows by the day. Upping the skills of the workforce addresses that in a positive way. Few would deny that innovators and industry disruptors should not be well compensated for building things like Teslas or platforms like Airbnb. But the people who keep civilization going should share in society’s bounty.
Regardless, it seems imperative for all of us to focus on this issue for another reason. Self- interest. If we can’t keep our buildings, houses, cars, computers and recreational goods in working order, things will fall apart. We need to put people to work in living-wage jobs, jobs that eliminate the need for the government to subsidize food and health care as it does for so many recipients. Most importantly, we need to give millions of non-college bound young people a pathway to dignity and make them part of our productive society.
All of this is going to require a sea change. Perhaps it starts with perception—that the head, hand and heart are valuable. Then onto government, where, in places like Germany, apprenticeships are a core part of industrial policy. Lastly, it may be as simple as acknowledging and honoring the value that craftspeople and tradespeople bring to our lives.