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Heels and Soles

I took several pairs of shoes in for repair the other day. Heels. Heels and soles. New stitching. The usual thing. I go to a small shop that is owned and operated by a very hard-working brother and sister team from Guatemala. Their shop is open from eight to eight. They charge a little more than some of the other shops. But they do very good work, I have been going there for years, and so I know the owners well enough to talk with them.

I asked whether my shoes could be ready by Saturday afternoon, and the sister had her doubts. She said that they have been very busy, that her brother (the master craftsman) had worked past midnight the night before, and was back in the shop before eight that morning. I said that it is good to have work in such bad economic times, and she agreed. But she then told me that their assistant, whom they had trained for five years, had left a year ago to open his own shop—and that they have been looking ever since, without any luck, for someone to replace him. She told me that he was a good person and they wished him luck in his new business—but she also said that they have interviewed scores of applicants during the past year, and still haven’t found anyone who is can do the kind of quality work that they want.

I asked about the applicants. She told me that only two Americans had applied for the job and that all the others were either from Central America or Europe. She said that the applicants all came with very high recommendations, but none of them could produce work up to their standards, and that the Americans were the worst of the lot, ‘Very sloppy!’

She said that she and her brother had eventually decided to hire an apprentice whom they would train from scratch, but that even there they had trouble finding the right person for the job. The man whom they hired has now been there for over three months, and is still learning how to polish the shoes properly. But most of the people who applied for the apprentice job wanted far more money than they could afford to pay to someone who had no skills and was just learning how to polish the shoes.

She said that it would take five years or more to train him to be a master craftsman, and that it would mean that more work would fall on her brother’s shoulders while he is training. She also worried that he might leave to start his own shop, as their previous assistant had, after he completed the training. But she said that they were willing to take the risk because they would then at least know that he could do the job.

Here is something that we seldom hear or read about in the news. The job is there. The employers need help and want to hire someone to fill it. A master craftsman can make good money—good enough to start his own business if he wants. But they couldn’t find anyone they could trust to do the kind of work they want. Today, we more often hear about the lack of jobs, and the problems that people who are out of work have in finding them. But we seldom hear about the problems that employers, and especially small businesses, have in finding the kind of person they can trust to do the work they have to offer.

This is not an isolated case. There are estimates that over five million jobs in this country are currently going unfilled because the employers cannot find the right people to fill them. Nor is it a concern that has been noticed by proponents of just one political persuasion. In their recent book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum describe the problems that employers have in finding quality workers that they can trust. So it is, perhaps, something that we should think about when we think about concerns pertaining to employment and job opportunities in the United States and contrasting policy possibilities for addressing them.

I am currently thinking of organizing an IF project to explore such concerns and develop such possibilities. So I asked the sister whether she might be interested in serving as a panelist in the project. She told me that she would love to participate, but simply had too much work on her hands to do so.

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