Same Dream, Different Collar

Chevy in the Hole was one of the largest auto production facilities in the world. At its peak, 8,000 people worked there, in eight different assembly and production plants in Flint, Michigan.

Possibly the greatest voice to come out of those plants was a guy named Ben Hamper, author of the book Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line. In it, he describes life as an assembly line worker during the dying days of the Flint plants.

The books characters had different ways of dealing with the life of a shoprat. All of them turned to alcohol in some way or another. One man in particular, one that Hamper was making a hero in his columns, was so drunk on the job that he shit his pants.

But Hamper had a different means of making the clock run a bit faster: he started to write. Working the rivet line, he would finish his work and have one or two minutes before the next car crawled down the line. In that pit of time, he started to scribble. And he got damn good at it, too.

Read any of his work, and you can plainly see this Rivethead guy is smart. He’s talented.

This begs the question: why did we have him working on an assembly line? You have a guy with that kind of intelligence, that kind of talent for writing, and the best thing we as a society can find for this guy to do is rivet rocker plates to cars?

In an interview, Hamper spoke to why this was:

“I use the phrase in my book,” [Hamper] says, […] “there’s so many of them just chiseled to the walls. There are a lot of people there who have enormous talent, but they get trapped. The money’s wonderful, but it’s a ball and chain that keeps you there. I heard so many guys say, ‘Well, I’m only going to give this another year and then I’m getting’ into what I really want to do.’ They’re still saying the same thing six years later. It’ll just make you sad.”

All those guys who used to work on the assembly line dreamed of a day when they, or their kids, wouldn’t have to do that work. They dreamed of something better. They dream of escape.

The odd thing is we did, by and large, escape the manufacturing business. Nowadays, we’re service-industry, and on the surface, this seems better. At least you get to go to a clean, well-lit place. The only heat you’ll feel is the heat from the vents. You don’t leave with grease and solvents on your fingers.

But what we did not escape, and have yet to escape, is the mind-numbing drudgery that the guys on the line felt. It might take place in the perch of a truck or a call center cubicle farm, but we have bushels of talented people who can’t take advantage of their talents, find fulfilling work, or improve their lot.

This, in and of itself, is a tragedy. The human mind is an incredible machine. It enables us to survive, to think, to save the world or destroy it. If we’re going to face the challenges we have coming, we cannot afford to waste human potential in this way. It’s far to valuable to leave on the table.

And really, we are reaching the point where we don’t have to.

Automation is going to kill almost half our jobs in our lifetimes. There’s already a machine in place that can do the Rivethead’s job better than he could. There are machines that can make your coffee. Hell, in a few years, there will be machines that are driving our trucks. That could lead us to a much better place, but very likely that it won’t.

It all starts in how we find people work that would suit them. In short, we don’t, because we don’t want to limit our options in any way that’s meaningful. The only way we absolutely limit options across the board are IQ tests that tell you what schools you can and can’t get into. That’s about it.

Our system is set up this way because we value freedom. We’d like to think that anyone can become anything, regardless of their skills. We want to focus on dreams. On the surface, this seems ideal. But there are huge drawbacks to that kind of a system.

A person could be steered into professions that can take advantage of their talents and inclinations, and to jobs that we need. It shouldn’t mean that trade school is for dumb people and college is for the smart ones; you can make a great living working with your hands, and a college degree does not mean employment, especially when you half-ass it.

That’s why people should be put in tracks much younger, and nurtured so they have some idea of how and where they can be successful. That would mean people won’t be free to work as they are now. But letting a kid loose on the world with no idea how to take advantage of their talents, or what jobs are needed in their working lifetimes, isn’t really freedom. If anything, it can mean quite the opposite, especially when you consider what we do next.

So a hypothetical kid, armed with no to little knowledge of themselves and their talents, or what the economy is going to demand in the near and long term, is pushed out into the wide world. We tell them they must, absolutely must, go to college. And what’s the next thing we do to them?

We allow them to go into massive amounts of debt to finance an education that may, or may not, be useful to them. I say ‘we’ allow because our public universities are things we control. They have the tuition that they do because we’ve allowed it as taxpayers and citizens.

It’s normal that a kid would have a mortgage or a new car’s worth of student loan debt coming out of school. But a kid with a burden like that isn’t going to be able to take risks. They’ll take any job they’re given and work like dogs just because they have to pay debt that can never be shed, only because we don’t allocate enough money for public education.

Even if you don’t go to college, you still need healthcare. The health care those autoworkers had wasn’t easy to come by then, and certainly isn’t now. Even if they have the education and lack the debt, people stuck in dead jobs that they are scared to leave because they’ll lose their insurance.

It’s like we’re tossing a kid into a pool with a rock around their neck and then being disappointed in them when they end up drowning. Sure, some can tread water. Some can even swim a little. But that’s not freedom. It’s not how to equip a generation of kids to do the things that need to be done. We’re raising kids trapped on the line, even if their collars are different.

The funny thing is, those lines where Hamper made himself as a writer, are not what they used to be. The work that’s left in them is better than riveting; it’s skilled work, taking advantage of the ingenuity and power of the human mind. That’s why more and more manufacturing jobs require an apprenticeship or an associates. The line as Hamper knew it is largely gone. Something new has risen to take its place.

So it goes in Flint, too. By spring next year, Chevy in the Hole is set to become an urban park and an automotive proving grounds for Kettering University, what once was the General Motors Institute. Instead of being the sea of gray concrete, it’s going to be a great city asset, even if it doesn’t invite the development some people think it will.

For a hundred years, workers like Ben Hamper made their living in drudgery. With automation, we’re reaching a point where won’t need that kind of work. The next generation will face a better work choices, if we equip them to make that choice meaningful.

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