Value in making things

February 18, 2014

By Dennis Glover

One of the most interesting aspects of the debate on Australia’s automotive industries is the renewed enthusiasm for industrial work. Not that long ago working in a factory was to be despised and avoided, but not today. Why?

Two main reasons suggest themselves.

The first is nostalgia. I came from a tight-knit, working-class suburb where everyone’s father and a lot of mothers too worked in the local auto plants and canneries. It provided structure, security, order and, especially when both parents worked, modest affluence. Such families were working class but not poor. The smarter and luckier of their children went to university or TAFE – ironically to escape a life of factory work. To the middle class, life in the manufacturing suburbs likely never looked flash, but anyone who takes a look around such communities today – especially those that have not recovered from the factory closures of the 1990s – will understand nostalgia is not always an irrational response to economic change.

For some places, the past was actually better than the present.

The second is the changing nature of manufacturing work. As Gideon Haigh describes in his book End of the Road?, automotive manufacturing, like a lot of high-end manufacturing, increasingly requires highly skilled jobs with good pay and international job mobility. A decade ago only footloose accountants, engineers and lawyers could get jobs anywhere; today skilled manufacturing workers can.

Increased standing

In short, manufacturing work has gained increased economic and social standing relative to other forms of work.

The pay-off from a degree today isn’t always high. We often hear people say the really smart kids at school went into the trades instead of going to university and becoming clerical workers and teachers. There may be a good reason for this. At the other end of the employment market, the appeal of unqualified service-sector jobs has also declined – often for good reason.

Many young people in sectors such as call centres and retail are stuck on the casual employment treadmill of low pay, zero job security and limited career prospects. But even cannery workers – at the lower end of the manufacturing rung – are often unionised, can earn up to $50,000 a year with overtime and have access to some degree of permanent employment. Not great, but it’s all relative.

Auto workers and even cannery workers do something that many other jobs do not allow: they make things, and vitally important things at that, sometimes in ways that require considerable craftsmanship and creativity. This could be fancy cars or just cans of food (something easy to look down your nose at until you consider the engineering involved in food preservation).

Manufacturing can be highly fulfilling, especially compared with the alternatives.

This brings an important question: what sort of work do we want for our people?

The answer has vital consequences for the sort of lives we lead.

Perhaps the future will be an intellectually unchallenging, brave new world where the resources sector generates the wealth the rest of us circulate happily at Safeways, IKEA, imported car showrooms and cafes – in a pleasant merry-go-round version of Keynes’ economic multiplier.

Such an economy may make us leaner, more efficient and wealthier in a narrow accounting sense, but is such an economy worthy of us? Can it give enough of our people adequate purpose and meaning? Can it satisfy the impulse that philosophers have identified as crucial to society since the start of the industrial revolution: the ideal of travail attractif – attractive, meaningful, satisfying work?

As English artist and manufacturer William Morris said, we can’t all be artists, but we all have some creative impulse inside us that can be expressed in the sort of craftsmanship that goes into making high-end manufactured objects – like cars.

Our economists used to be philosophers and historians as well as mathematicians. The recently announced closures of our car makers demonstrate those economists have greater sway over our lives than ever before. Surely this new power gives them the responsibility to think deeper and wider than they are currently doing.