Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/August 1910/The Danger of Unskill




TWO human streams pour ceaselessly into the sea of American industry. One of these brings to us the immigrant, the man of foreign stock, alien in blood and customs, and more and more from the backward and "beaten" peoples of eastern Europe. The sources of the other stream are in our own life, and upon it are borne America's own children who, in the passing of years, are to face the duties of manhood and womanhood. These two streams fill the vast national reservoir of labor upon which depends in large measure the future of American industry and American moral welfare. This is the first fact to which attention is directed.

The second fact is the changing character of industry, aside from its human element. We are in the midst of the great mechanical revolution whose beginning in America goes back to the early years of the nineteenth century, but which since the civil war has been uprooting the old order, supplanting its simpler methods with marvelous rapidity and tremendous power.

The human consequence of this revolution is the driving out of the man by the machine, on the one hand, and the increasing specialization of labor on the other. And the labor supplanted by the machine, if it is to fit into the resulting more specialized employments, must have skill. Primitive man was unspecialized and his skill was of the slightest, his knowledge being insignificant. The man of to-day finds that sheer muscle is at a discount, and his weaker but better trained fellow passes him in the race. It is not meant that there is not a great demand for unskilled labor, but the unskilled laborer works under a constantly growing handicap.

In our earlier national history, it was possible for us to rely for prosperity upon the resources of nature. Force of body and character sufficient to brave the hardships of a raw and untrained world, and to pluck from nature the bounties which she furnished in abundance, was the quality most essential. Each man or family was a unit in production; cooperation or combination on any extended scale involving training, was not found or needed. Individualism and the overthrow of nature, and her exploitation, were the important features of our national life which assured success; and it was just these qualities of endurance, courage, force, assertiveness, aided by sheer muscle, which the selective process of our early immigration brought to us. Only men and women of such qualities could and would face the long and dreary sea voyage and brave the peril of the unknown new world. Only the man of hope, of ambition, poor in the wealth of the world, but rich in determination, force and foresight, was suited for such migration. So too, it often was the leader of the advance movement of civilization in Europe who, because of political oppression, led a vanguard of the best blood of his country to share the bounties of nature in America.

But the day in which we can rely for prosperity upon nature's bounty is past. Her resources have been explored and divided up. And while new resources continue to be brought to light, they are the possession of the few, and offer little of hope to the hungry immigrant from the old world.

We can not, therefore, depend exclusively upon nature and the raw force and determination of our people to maintain or continue the old-time progress and high position of America. More and more our dependence must be placed upon ourselves rather than upon nature alone, and in particular upon a character acquired through training. The new industrial life, it has been said, demands skill. If America is to advance in industry, she must face this demand; her people must be trained and trained industrially.

If such is a true statement of the general character of the productive process of to-day, it is pertinent to inquire if the two streams of humanity, which furnish the labor necessary to production, are fitted to the more specialized demands of this process. Is our labor skilled? And what are its means of attaining skill?

Let us consider first the stream of immigration. The report of the commissioner general of immigration for 1907 shows that out of the total number of 1,285,000 coming to this country from other parts of the world in the year 1906, about eighty-three per cent, were without skill requisite to enter a skilled industry. If we eliminate from this number the women, children, aged and such other persons as are described as having no occupation at all, there remains fifty-nine per cent, of the total who are of industrial age and sex and yet are distinctly unskilled laborers. A large number, too, of those excluded are women who will enter unskilled trades, and many are children who will begin to earn at the earliest possible time in unskilled employments.

The fact that such a large proportion of the immigrant population is unskilled is inevitable. It is necessary only to recall that the great influx of the present and recent past is from central and southern Europe, from regions in which the opportunity to acquire skill is comparatively slight, and where the call for skill is not yet dominant.

If it be agreed, then, that the stream of immigration is pouring a mass of unskilled labor into our country, consider what is the case in regard to the second source of our industrial life. What is the tendency to skill and the opportunity to acquire it among our own children who must soon enter industry? It is impossible to state this problem in a statistical fashion; but a fair idea may be obtained from a study of the industrial situation. Skill may be gained through two, and only two, methods. It must come either in connection with industry itself or in some way of preparation outside it; either through a system of apprenticeship or by way of vocational schools or school studies. In the older state of industry, the apprentice system of the guilds constituted a logical and efficient method of training. Boys became skilled workers under direction of a master and in the actual work of production. The apprentice system was the great industrial school of the past, and not only because it led to industrial skill, but also because it gave at least something of that mental discipline and power which we associate with the idea of a school.

This system, as is well known, is largely a thing of the past. It is true that apprentices are now received in some industrial plants, but the number so received is entirely inadequate to furnish a supply of skilled labor for the many lines of trade and industry. It is enough to say that the modern factory with its great specialization, is not as a rule, willing to train its skilled workers. It wishes its workers to come to it already skilled.

If training can not be gained as a part of the actual productive process, may it be acquired outside that process? Or, to state it differently, does our school system give the members of the growing generation a training which fits them to enter the industrial life as skilled workers?

We have in this country a considerable and growing number of trade schools and technical schools. We also find evening schools where vocational training may be obtained; and there are other opportunities of a similar sort. But it is not necessary to prove that there is but a scant beginning in this direction, as this is admitted by all students of the subject. It is clear that our present means of training for trade and industry through special schools is entirely inadequate, and it is equally well admitted that our common school system does not meet the need in this direction. Its curriculum has been determined by other interests than the economic needs of a constantly increasing industrial population.

In the excellent study by Professor Thorndike,[1] based upon returns from schools of twenty-three cities having a population of 25,000 or more, it is demonstrated beyond a doubt that the lack of opportunity for vocational training is a great cause of that heavy dropping out of school in early grades which thereby closes school education to a large proportion of our children. Dr. Thorndike finds that only twenty-seven per cent, of those entering the first grade of the common school continue into the first year of the high school; and of these, thirty-seven per cent, drop out by the end of the first high-school year. The main cause of this enormous elimination from the high school has to do with the nature of the high-school course of study. Evidently a considerable number begin the high school at the age of fourteen or fifteen, an age at which little skill has been gained, yet which is favorable to its acquisition, but are discouraged by the lack of opportunity in this direction and so leave school altogether.

As is well known, it was found by the Massachusetts Commission on Industrial and Technical Education that "25,000 children between fourteen and sixteen years of age are at work or idle," that is, not in school; and the result of this careful investigation was to make entirely certain that these children had dropped out of school because they did not find there any possibility for training along lines which would prepare for the making of a livelihood.

We must conclude, therefore, that neither within the organization of industry itself, nor outside of it, in schools of any type, is there opportunity for the stream of growing boys and girls to gain in an economic manner that degree of vocational training which the conditions of modern industry demand.

What then is the situation which we face? First, the demand of our specialized commercial and industrial life for a larger and larger percentage of skilled workers. Secondly, a stream of foreign immigration pouring upon our shores an unskilled population much of which could not acquire skill readily, even if opportunity were presented, and which must inevitably supply largely the demand for unskilled labor. Third, a stream of growing boys and girls who must earn their living through our present complex and specialized forms of industry. Fourth, a comparatively slight chance of their gaining skill after they enter the industrial life, and no adequate opportunity to gain skill through the school before entering upon this work. What is the result? A demand for trained men and women, on the one hand, and on the other a vain beating against the bars which defend the skilled positions, by a mass of desponding, dissatisfied unskilled workers, with only the most venturesome and aggressive pushing through into skilled positions in a manner harmful and exhausting to themselves and weakening to the nation.

It is at this point that the real menace of unskill becomes clear. Much has been written and spoken about the retarding effect of unskill upon our national production, and this is indeed serious. But the real danger is more fundamental. Of greater importance than the product of labor is the worker himself. The effect upon our people of such a situation as has been described, is the real danger. The problem is not primarily industrial but social. Unskill in the face of a demand for skill leads to degeneracy. In this fact lies its greatest menace. In his admirable study of "Misery and its Causes," Dr. Devine wisely suggests that the great cause of misery is maladjustment, and there is strong reason to think that his conclusion is correct. But just in so far as it is time that economic facts lie back of and condition the progress of civilization, to that extent failure to meet the fundamental economic facts involved in advancing stages of industry must constitute or lead to the greatest social maladjustment and consequent degradation and misery. It is maladjustment in respect to the most vital phase of life.

A great proportion of the young people of our country must enter an industrial calling. In what way does this unfitness for it affect their lives? The result is best shown by the often-quoted finding of the Massachusetts Commission on Industrial and Technical Education, for 1906. Out of 25,000 young people of from fourteen to sixteen years of age in that state not in school, it is reported that thirty-three per cent, were in absolutely unskilled trades and sixty-four per cent, in what are called low-grade industries, where the skill of the workers is very slight. Only less than two per cent, had found their way into really skilled industries. What does it mean, humanly speaking, to have a child employed in an unskilled industry? Simply that the child usually has come to the end of its development. On the side of industry it means a permanently small production and low earning power; on the side of the individual life, it means a stagnant mind and the consequences which flow from it. For it is not true that children remain in these low-grade occupations for a brief time, and from them pass to higher and more skilled employment. The nature of industrial and commercial technic is such that there is a chasm between unskilled and skilled employments. There is no passage from one to the other. The elevator boy or messenger boy is not being trained to be a mechanic or a telegrapher or any other more or less skilled worker. These and other low-paid juvenile employments represent a class of work of a special sort from which there is no exit and which rather unfit than fit one for better work. In the street trades, in candy-making, in cotton, woolen, knitting and other mill work, and in many other places such work is found. To a considerable extent it is work which should be done by machines and not by growing boys and girls. The child who leaves school to enter one of these positions, condemns himself in the majority of cases to an unskilled life. He passes from one unskilled position to another, becoming more and more discontented as he finds it impossible to advance in wages and responsibility. Discontent, hopelessness, shiftlessness, take the place of ambition and progressive force. The unskilled employment is not disciplinary and it does not lead to a skilled employment which is disciplinary. In the organization of industry, the avoidance of waste is a great aim; yet the lessening of the greatest of all wastes—the waste of life—receives scanty attention.

The writer of "The Long Day,"[2] in drawing upon her own experience as an unskilled girl, looking for employment in a great city, summarizes the situation in these works:

For sad and terrible though it be, the truth is that the majority of "unfortunates," whether of the specifically criminal or of the prostitute class, are what they are, not because they are inherently vicious, but because they were failures as workers and wage earners. They were failures as such, primarily, for no other reason than that they did not like to work. And they did not like to work, not because they are lazy—they are anything but lazy—but because they did not know how to work.

And again the same writer records her conclusions in regard to the educational need of girls in view of the modern demand for skill:

And there are other things more important than the "three R's" which she should be taught. She should be taught how to work—how to work intelligently. She should be trained young in the fundamental race activities, in the natural human instincts for making something with the hands or of doing something with the hands, and of taking infinite pleasure in making it perfect, in doing it well.[3]

And it may be added that what is true of girls is equally true of boys. The great cause of failure and resulting degeneracy is lack of training.

It must be recognized that the vocational impulse is deep-seated, and as the child advances into youth he begins to look to the doing of his life's work. He is restless with simply academic subjects, however valuable. He is concrete in his demands. He wishes to do and earn. But it is an interest in the deep human instincts and forces which must be laid hold of, if we are to develop a healthy, hopeful life; and among these we must recognize the economic instinct leading to the desire to earn and to make a place in the world of production. How much of progress flowed from the development resulting from the vocational education of the apprentice of the guild organization, it is not possible to say; but it certainly was a factor of no small import. And the close association of the wonderful expression of artistic genius in Italy with the development of the skilled artisan and craftsman, is a feature of social history which should lead to serious reflection.

But, further, lack of skill means insecurity of employment for adult workers; and no greater danger threatens labor than this. Every slackening of trade, every depression of business, every interference with industrial progress, every mistake of judgment of the organizers of industry, falls with heaviest force upon the unskilled. Their value in industry is least, their tenure of employment is most easily imperilled. The past two winters with armies of unemployed in every large city, recruited largely, we are told by competent observers, from the unskilled, bear witness to this fact.

A consequence of economic insecurity is a weakening of moral tone and grip; this is the greatest of all dangers to society. "Every great industrial crisis leaves behind it," says Dr. Warner, "a legacy of individual degeneracy and personal unthrift."[4] "Involuntary idleness intensifies and perpetuates incapacity." Nothing so begets failure as the consciousness of failure. The discipline of regular and continuous occupation is a support which few can do without. At the recent meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws held that pauperism arises mainly from the casual worker class, that is, in the main, the unskilled class whose security of employment is slightest and whose mental attitude is therefore least hopeful and healthy. To live on the edge of social existence blinds the eyes to the social order which is not near the edge. Hopefulness of mind is a social force impossible to measure. It is hope which marks the difference between slavery and freedom, between stagnation and progress. But insecurity weakens and destroys hope, and if employment continues to be insecure, the result must be an increasing body of hopeless men and women, feeding, inevitably, the ranks of criminal and pauper degeneracy.

Viewed from this point, the significance of unskill becomes tremendous. Lack of skill stands as the bar to mental progress even in an unskilled age; but in an age demanding skill, the lack of it is itself a condition leading to degeneration. Through unskill, labor is condemned to low wages, a narrow outlook, an inability to meet the modern demands of industry; by remaining economically unfit, men become socially unfit and are forced for themselves and their children into the ceaseless round of struggle for bare subsistence, with consequent hopelessness, bodily decay and resultant misery. It should be clear that in refusing to meet the industrial needs of our age for skilled workers the nation is condemning a considerable part of its population to an inevitable economic unfitness and resultant mental sterility, since economic well-being is essential to mental stability and progress. Degeneracy, thus, is born of the unskilled hand and the untrained mind.

There is one further position which needs to be considered. It is becoming clear, as investigation into social life proceeds, that human progress depends largely upon society's creative minds, its "inventors," its originators, whose fertile ideas are passed on to the mind of the mass of mankind. It is these suggestive and fruitful ideas which mark the stages of advancement and which constitute the essence of civilization.

And it may be said, further, to be a matter of at least large probability that these creative minds may be brought forth in any stratum of society. Whether they shall develop and give to civilization the benefit of their talent, depends upon the conditions surrounding them. They may grow and become mentally fruitful, or be repressed and become sterile, according as social environment is favorable or the contrary. It would seem that society should make every effort, in its own interest, to encourage their nurture and preservation. But, as Dr. Ward has so well shown,[5] education is the greatest social agency for providing that the mind, strong by nature, shall develop and give its ideas to the world. How great therefore is the urgency that society should afford educational opportunity to all classes of its people. How great a part of the possible progress of the race or nation is hindered by the social waste of its creative ability which never arrives at its period of fertile productiveness for lack of suitable social opportunity.

It should, however, be clear from what has already been said that the only education which can reach the masses of a nation and hold them long enough to be of educational service to them, is that which looks toward vocation. And it therefore follows that only by making our school system, to some degree, industrial and vocational, and thereby holding our children under educational influences for a longer period, can the great number of productive minds, born in poverty or other unfavorable conditions, be preserved and brought to that stage of development in which they may advance the nation.

Here, then, is the real danger of unskill. Modern industry calls for skill. In the face of this demand, lack of skill leads to unemployment and so to social weakness. Lack of skill leads, also, to poor employment; and so, likewise, carries men into shiftlessness, discontent and degeneration. On the other hand, skill breeds hope and hence mental development. It opens new avenues of activity and draws out otherwise buried talent, and thus preserves the originators to the race. But our two streams of labor are inadequately trained for the economic demand. What we should do in regard to the stream of immigrants is a problem by itself. But as for our own children, the demand for opportunity to gain that skill, which will enable them to fit the economic life of to-day, is a very urgent and vital one.

  1. "The Elimination of Pupils from School," p. 118 ff.
  2. Page 277.
  3. Page 294.
  4. A. G. Warner, "American Charities," pp. 103 and 97.
  5. "Applied Sociology," chapter X.