Sunday, February 28, 2016

$100,000 Garbage Workers

Ha-- you thought that was some sort of snarky figurative expression in the title, but no-- courtesy of CNN Money, here's an article about the garbage workers in New York City that make over $100K annually.

While we keep insisting that every child must graduate from high school and immediately hit the college trail, garbage workers, including the two high school dropouts profiled  in New York City make over $100K. And the article reports that garbage worker salaries are growing faster than other salaries in the country.

This looks like a fine example of the invisible hand at work. Cities (particularly huge ones) need garbage workers. Need, as in "can't function at all without them." Not a lot of people have the desire or the skills for garbage work, and so cities offer more and more pay to convince people to do the work. It's elegant and simple.

There are other blue collar jobs like this. Welders, for instance, are in constant demand. I teach many future blue collar workers, and from them I've learned about jobs that I never knew existed, like the former student who traveled for years with a hotel upgrade crew that simply traveled from city to city, remodeling the next hotel in the chain that was due to be upgraded. Roofers, construction workers, heavy machinery operators, linemen-- all sorts of jobs that, as Mike Rowe always said, make civilized life possible for the rest of us.

When we discuss work and compensation, we often fail to distinguish between different kinds of work. I don't mean blue collar vs. white collar. I mean necessary vs. unnecessary. As a culture, we employ a vast number of people doing things that nobody actually needs to do at all.

If all the garbage workers in the country vanished overnight, we would have a major crisis on our hands within a week, and virtually everybody in the country would be alarmed. On the other hand, if every McDonald's in the country vanished overnight, there would be no crisis for anyone except the people who work in Micky D's and the people who make money from it.

That distinction makes a huge difference in leverage. Whenever someone argues against a living wage by saying, "If they want to make better money, they should take a better job in a cheaper city," I want to ask, "But don't you need somebody to do that job in your city?" However, the answer to my question in many cases is, "No. " But not with garbage workers-- we need somebody in our city to do that job, and so we pay whatever it takes to make that happen.

And so, while contemplating the $100K garbage workers, it hit me-- it's not just that many folks think anybody can do a teacher's job, or that reformsters are trying hard to turn teaching into a low-skills job that anybody can do. It's also that lots of folks think it's a job that doesn't need to be done. Nobody, the thinking goes, really needs to learn about quadratic equations or the Boer War or that Shakespeare guy. Sure, reading and writing are swell, but don't we all pretty much have a handle on that by fourth grade or so? After that, isn't it all just training for a particular line of work? Do we really need middle and high school for anything?

We are disinclined to pay a lot of money for people to do a job that we don't think actually needs to be done.

In this arena, reformsters are both helping and hurting. On the one hand, corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonald's benefit from having very wealthy constituencies, the corporate chiefs who depend on the corporation for wealth and use that wealth and power to look after their business interests. Until the rise of corporate reform, with its big money charters and multi-billion dollar testing manufacturers, education had no such constituency. Nobody was making Walton-style money from public education. On the other hand, reformsters have done their best to reduce education to the process of getting ready for and taking a Big Standardized Test, which is an outstanding example of a job that doesn't need to be done at all.

And so we get hit pieces like the Boston Globe opinion piece slamming school district employees who make over $100K. The writer was comparing teachers to Navy Seals when she should have been comparing them to garbage workers-- "Over a 100 grand! Who do they think they are?! Garbage workers??"

I don't begrudge those workers a cent. New York needs them in a way that it doesn't need any other profession (including banksters on Wall Street). But I do envy them their recognition for being an essential part of life in the Big Apple, and I question the single-minded tunnel vision education focus on college as a goal for all students. Go to college, kids, so you can make good money. Who knows? Study hard, and some day you might even make garbage worker money!


  1. Mike Rowe would agree with many of the things you say here. He's been promoting training for work that doesn't require 4 year degrees for a while. It is misguided to expect every high school graduate to go on to a 4 year university when we have many of jobs that are not being filled.

  2. When my younger daughter informed her teachers in her senior year of high school she wasn't taking the SAT because she wasn't interested in college, they were aghast. Note she had been identified for the Gifted and Talented Program, so it was immediately assumed she would be engaging in post-secondary education.

    She told me she'd found little in her schooling of any practical use, and she wasn't interested in moving on to more of the same because she didn't really know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. So, she engaged in blue-collar work, picked up Windows certification, and eventually started her own ebook publishing business. Where she is quite happy with not a single college degree in sight.

    This is what terrifies me about the reformists' focus on demanding children become career-oriented before they know how to read. It's insane, and since the majority of them don't have a mother who says "What do YOU want?" six times a day, they aren't going to have the kind of self-awareness my daughter had to rebel.

  3. I do agree with some of this, but even if students don't go to college, the vast majority of them will need SOME kind of training after high school (NYC garbage collectors excepted). As a middle school counselor, I am not concerned about what careers my students are thinking about, but I want them to know how to explore different options, keep as many paths open as possible and begin to learn how their talents, desires, needs and values impact career choices.

  4. The incessant pressure put on all our students to go to college is a huge disservice for so many of them. We've convinced them that college is the only acceptable plan for their future even when they have no interest in academics and are mediocre students, at best, with GPAs of 2.0 and lower.

    Many of these kids enroll in the local community college just because it's expected, flounder for a term or two then drop out with nothing to show for it except a pile of debt and a feeling of failure. I don't understand why we don't provide access to a well rounded vocational program in our high schools. This would provide many of our students access to well-paying and rewarding jobs.