I got to thinking about this after reading “The Pay Is Too Damn Low,” an article by James Surowiecki in The New Yorker magazine. Surowiecki offers some unique insights into the recent spate of efforts across the country to increase the minimum wage. His main point is that fast food restaurants and department stores pay minimum wage because their margins are so slim they need to pay low wages to be profitable. Surowiecki says those businesses were able to get away with paying low wages because they relied on teenagers and “underemployed married women” who were looking for pocket money or just additional dollars for the family.
But because of recent economic problems many of the people now in those jobs are actually the main breadwinners and they’re trying to support a family on their fast-food wage. So it’s not the jobs or business models that have changed – it’s the people working in those jobs that have changed.
In years past (we’re taking in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s) those breadwinners often worked in factory-type jobs, often union supported, that provided a middle class-type wage (he specifically references General Motors, Ford, Standard Oil and Bethlehem Steel). Workers employed at those and similar companies were able to buy homes (even vacation homes), boats, new cars, take vacations, pay for their kids’ college and more. Those types of companies were the country’s biggest employers—but today the country’s biggest employers are retail chains and fast food restaurants.
So what’s all that got to do with construction? Not much…except that few construction jobs pay minimum wage. Why is that? Because construction work is difficult. It’s hot. It’s dirty. It’s physical. It requires long days. It can be dangerous. It requires skills. So contractors pay their workers more.
Much like working for GM in the 1960s, working construction today can be a career that enables people to support themselves and support a family. As workers stick with a company and become more valuable and more skilled they can earn their way up the income ladder and into the middle class.
And unlike those low-skilled production jobs that won’t be coming back, construction is here to stay. We’ll always be building houses, shopping centers, office buildings, and condominiums and with the deplorable state of the nation’s infrastructure there’s road and bridge work that will take decades to repair – assuming it ever gets funded.
So, can construction rebuild the middle class? Yes, and for one simple reason: Construction pay is not too damn low.