Lose the Sneering Elitism Towards Skilled Trades

A Conversation with Ed Gillespie, Former White House Counselor to President George W. Bush and Former Chair of the Republican National Committee

Many Americans make a living through skilled labor, but these jobs are often looked down upon by the elite. To help overcome the skills gap and scarcity of jobs in rural America, educators and communities should promote skilled labor and certification programs.

Ed Gillespie running for governor in 2017. (via Twitter @EdWGillespie)

Ed Gillespie’s career in Washington includes serving as White House Counselor to President George W. Bush, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and as a top aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Tex. Long before those prominent roles, the New Jersey native put himself through college with jobs like parking cars at the U.S. Capitol. Gillespie, whose father was an Irish immigrant, grew up working in his parents’ South Jersey grocery store.

The Catholic University graduate remained in the Washington, D.C. area, where he later ran unsuccessfully for governor and senator in Virginia. In this exchange with Catalyst Editor William McKenzie, Gillespie, a 2018 Harvard Institute of Politics fellow, discusses the need to speak honestly about the challenges too many Americans face in making it to the middle class – and staying there. Among his solutions are extolling the skilled trades and focusing on developing home-grown businesses.

In 2017, you ran for governor of Virginia, a state that had been losing higher-wage jobs.  Why are we having such a hard time getting more people into the middle class, the median income of which is $61,000 today? And not only getting there, but staying there?

Like a lot of states, Virginia’s economic opportunity and prosperity are not evenly spread.  In areas like Northern Virginia and Richmond, there are lots of professional opportunities and they are growing.  But even in those areas and more acutely in other parts of the Commonwealth, we need to do a better job of training for skilled hourly-wage jobs, and also in creating them.

Most Americans do not obtain a four-year college degree, and the demand in the labor market for skilled labor and certification training is strong, but there’s a gap in supply. I’ve always felt that this is not just a matter of education policy, but there’s a societal and cultural element to it as well.

Most Americans do not obtain a four-year college degree, and the demand in the labor market for skilled labor and certification training is strong, but there’s a gap in supply.

When I was in high school we had “shop class” — auto shop, wood shop, metal shop. Somewhere along the way, these came to be looked down upon, and a sneering elitism crept into our culture that made those who work on their feet and with their hands to feel in some way like second-class citizens.

A supply gap exists for welders and other workers in the skilled trades.

We need to extol skilled trades in our society, and elevate them in our culture. They’re economically vital, and they provide a great pathway to a sustainable middle class. We rightly celebrate the best high school debate team in state, or the state football champions. We should also celebrate the high school team that can assemble a working car engine in the fastest time, or wire a model home in a competition.  We not only need to change our policies, we need to change a lot of our mindsets.

What do you see happening in your state and elsewhere when it comes to helping people acquire skills and get full-time jobs that pay a middle-class wage?

That question addresses both supply and demand. On the demand side, I believe Virginia needs to put a greater focus on fostering natural, organic growth and small business formation and expansion. Our economic policies have become too focused on “whale hunting,” using tax dollars and other targeted incentives to try to lure an existing business in another state to move their headquarters or other facilities to Virginia. We’re in the hunt for the second Amazon headquarters, which would be great of course, but that’s not a path to the kind of long-term sustainable growth and job creation we need in my view.  

A more entrepreneurial, dynamic economy that’s led by innovators and small business owners requires a more patient approach, but it would have the greatest impact in terms of new job creation and opportunities for an emerging and growing middle class. The sweet spot of job creation is when a small business is becoming a bigger business, and we need more of that in our Commonwealth.

A concrete products plant in Bristol, Virginia, near the Tennessee state line (via Twitter @EdWGillespie)
A more entrepreneurial, dynamic economy that’s led by innovators and small business owners requires a more patient approach, but it would have the greatest impact in terms of new job creation and opportunities for an emerging and growing middle class.

And we also need to align our elementary and high schools and our community colleges with the demands of the workforce of today and of the future. Associate degrees and certification training are desperately needed in the marketplace, as is programming and coding ability.  Our K-12 and higher education systems should help meet the needs of employers in their area, and in the process be a conduit to good paying, high-wage jobs for the students they serve.

Are we having a hard time filling middle-wage jobs because people don’t want to leave their communities to find one? For better or ill, large metro areas tend to be the greater drivers of job growth. Or do these jobs just not exist in sufficient numbers?

There’s no doubt urban areas are generally generating more jobs and attracting talent from less-populated, more rural areas. But the biggest problems in the more rural parts of our country have less to do with an inability to fill high-wage jobs than a scarcity of them. I think we need to acknowledge some of the root causes for that scarcity, and the resulting population decline, if we’re going to have the credibility to change things for the better in the future. And by “we,” in this instance, I mean my fellow Republicans and proponents of democratic capitalism.

... the biggest problems in the more rural parts of our country have less to do with an inability to fill high-wage jobs than a scarcity of them.

The fact is many of these struggling areas went through a painful economic transition as a result of liberalized trade policies over the past 30 years or so. In Southside Virginia, which runs along the North Carolina border and some of the Tennessee border, the loss of manufacturing jobs — furniture and textiles, for example — in the ‘80s is still felt today. Vacant, closed plant buildings are painful reminders of a more vibrant past. 

They’re working hard and with some success to attract new businesses and investment, but the fact is free trade proponents either underestimated or undersold the negative impact trade liberalization would have on certain sectors and specific jobs. That’s not to say, net-net, there’s not been a positive effect. I think there has been.

But the disruption in certain skilled labor markets, and the movement of jobs from those markets that resulted from NAFTA and China’s admittance to the WTO were significant. And conservative Republicans need to acknowledge that fact, if we are going to have credibility on trade in the future.  

I was on a panel one time with someone from Great Britain — I wish I could remember his name — but he said that the trade liberalization policies of the past few decades “have been very good for poor people in poor countries and rich people in poor countries, and very good for rich people in rich countries. But they’ve been very bad for poor people in rich countries.”

The movement of jobs from those markets that resulted from NAFTA and China’s admittance to the WTO were significant. And conservative Republicans need to acknowledge that fact, if we are going to have credibility on trade in the future.

I was struck by that, because what I heard him say and what I saw in Southside Virginia matched up.  I don’t believe that tariffs are actually the answer, but I understand the frustration felt in many communities that have felt victimized by our trade policies of the recent past.

You have talked before about jobs that flow from “start-ups” and “scale-ups.” What did you mean by that? And how might that work today for those who want the dignity of owning their own business, even if it might not turn them into millionaires?

At the state level, we need to put a greater emphasis on start-ups and scale-ups.  I’m all for trying to get Amazon to open their headquarters here, but our mindset needs to shift from luring Amazon to move here to having the next Amazon be a Virginia company, born and raised here. A lot of homegrown Virginia companies resent having their tax dollars taken from them to subsidize a business in another state moving into Virginia.  

Downtown Richmond, Virginia
I’m all for trying to get Amazon to open their headquarters here, but our mindset needs to shift from luring Amazon to move here to having the next Amazon be a Virginia company, born and raised here.

Politicians get a quick-hit press release announcing a company moving a headquarters or opening a plant in their state, and I’m talking about politicians in both parties, that they don’t get when an existing business adds 20 employees. But that kind of organic growth, that kind of scaling up, is more likely to result in jobs and businesses that are going to be in the Commonwealth 25 years from now.  Whereas the company that was lured into Virginia with incentives and grants and subsidies may just as easily be lured out of it in a decade or so.

At the outset, you mentioned that some people sneer at students taking shop class or people working with their hands for a living. How do we bridge the cultural gap that is part of this debate about the middle class? People who live in small towns might not share the cultural preferences of people in big cities, and vice versa. And there are tomes being written about these differences, including J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

I grew up in a small town with a lot of poverty, too.  It was in New Jersey, but rural south Jersey. In the Pine Barrens. We didn’t “curb our dogs.” They weren’t even on leashes. We had a volunteer fire department, and an emergency squad, too.  

My parents didn’t go to college, but they insisted that I do. I worked my way through college in Washington, D.C., including as a Senate parking lot attendant, parking the cars for the staff who work in the big offices on Capitol Hill three mornings a week. That’s how I ended up in politics, and eventually moving to Virginia for Cathy and me to raise our family there.

And while I don’t live in “the city,” I’ve spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C. But because of my campaigns, I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Shenandoah Valley, Southside Virginia, coal country, Hampton Roads, and the Northern Neck. I’ve been with our coal miners half a mile below the ground, out on the Chesapeake Bay with the watermen, and in our factories and poultry plants and on our farms, with incarcerated Virginians in our prisons and jails and returned citizens seeking reconciliation, and with addicts in recovery and hungry schoolchildren who need shoes that fit.

One of the great things about a campaign is that it causes you to go places and meet people you otherwise might never go or meet. After I lost my race I did a residential fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School, which exposed me to an academic environment I’d never been in before.

Ed Gillespie on the 2017 gubernatorial campaign trail at a farmer's market in Hanover County, Virginia. (via Twitter @EdWGillespie)

The contrast between the two experiences was interesting, and I’d find myself sometimes listening to Ivy League academics generalizing about segments of our population that just a few months before I’d been listening to on the campaign trail and thinking, “You have never met someone like you’re describing in your life, let alone spent time meeting with them in their homes or on their job or at their place of worship.”  

There is a cultural divide. I’ve talked already about the cultural aspect of attitudes toward skilled trade jobs. I was meeting once with school system superintendents from across Virginia and I made the point about the need for more skills training in our high schools, noting that we needed a viable career path for those students not going on to get a four-year college degree.

One of the superintendents said she agreed with me on the policy, but politely pointed out that I’d described those students “by what they’re NOT going to do… rather than what they’re going to do.”  I made a point from then on to strike that language from how I talked about the need for greater skills training, but it was revealing that it is so ingrained in our culture — “those who go to college and those who don’t.”

When you look at those electoral maps with the red and blue partisan demarcations, the fact is a lot of major corporations, and their executives and board members, live in blue areas and a lot of their workers and consumers live in red ones, and there is often a cultural divide between them.

When you look at those electoral maps with the red and blue partisan demarcations, the fact is a lot of major corporations, and their executives and board members, live in blue areas and a lot of their workers and consumers live in red ones, and there is often a cultural divide between them.

It also is increasingly a voluntary one, as Ryan Enos at Harvard has written about in The Space Between Us.  I saw his presentation at a class Scott Jennings was teaching up there, and it is striking how much Americans are sorting ourselves into enclaves of like-minded people.

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