James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Sunday, December 03, 2006

You have to read what isn't there

Business writers, like sports writers, tend to get too close to their subjects and to absorb the attitudes and beliefs of the players they're supposed to be covering as unbiased observers.

That often leads them to serious error and occasionally to downright stupidity. Reporters who really are far from stupid make boneheaded choices because they forget to step back and question the “common wisdom” of the people they write about.

I know this about business writers because I are one. Or was (were?), for many years.

Also, these days we have to acknowledge that the people who run newspapers don't want the supposed wisdom of business leaders questioned.

One of the Twin Cities area's brighter business writers, the Star Tribune's Neal St. Anthony, fell into it the other day, clear up to the “don't make waves” level.

St. Anthony, whom I know to be a decent, even kindly, human being, is a business columnist, which means he doesn't have to hold his nose and merely report what his sources say. He's free to point out error and the falsity of assumptions made by the corporate big shots. I wish he'd do that more often.

He wrote in his Dec. 2 column about how Minnesota employers “are complaining that there are too few qualified workers” to fill the wonderful jobs they are again providing.

(In that, by the way, the Minnesota bosses aren't alone. The same song – as is usual with such songs – is being sung in many parts of the country. Most of the corporate propaganda campaigns you'll run across are presented as local, but actually are highly coordinated across the country by Chambers of Commerce and other such organizations.)

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and 40 affiliated chambers around the state met with 800 small to large employers, St. Anthony reported, and shortages in skilled workers –- especially in technology and manufacturing -- emerged as a major complaint.

An annual report by the Minnesota chamber, scheduled for release Tuesday (Dec. 5), will give the organization's outlook for business in the state in 2007 and it will have some things to say about worker shortages and employment training programs, St. Anthony said.

Then the columnist, “speaking of jobs,” noted the opening last week of the Suzlon wind-turbine plant at Pipestone, a small town on the almost treeless prairies of southwestern Minnesota. The plant created 235 manufacturing and engineering jobs that average $15 an hour, St. Anthony reported. Within a few months that will be up to about 275 jobs, he said.

The implication of his wording is that $15 an hour is pretty wonderful. That certainly is what the Chamber of Commerce will say.

Let's look at that, as St. Anthony should have done, keeping in mind that we're talking skilled labor and “engineering” work. Also keep in mind that if the average is $15, and some college educated employees are going to make a lot more, a majority of the workers will be paid considerably less than that figure.

In fact, the company probably is going to have to pay one hell of a lot more to draw highly skilled and educated people to Pipestone which is, to be brutally honest, a dreary and isolated town in a dreary landscape.

That $15 an hour, based on a 40-hour week, translates to $600 a week, $31,200 a year. Before taxes.

Assume that a married couple both work at the plant and both earn that average hourly wage. With both employed full time, the family income is $62,400. Before taxes. Throw in a couple of kids with college ambitions, the cost of a house (even in a town like Pipestone), groceries, clothing and all the usual expenses of living. Almost certainly, given the location and the strong possibility that the spouses work somewhat different hours, the family will need two cars. That $62,400 doesn't translate to expansive living, even in Pipestone.

But the truth is, it's much more likely that the female half of the couple will be employed –- if she can find employment –- at a much lower salary, probably part time. Figure a convenience store or a Wal-mart kind of operation, 25 hours a week, maybe $6 an hour.

That gives the wife an annual income of $7,800 a year which,believe me, is typical in such rural locations. That also makes the probably false assumption that she either takes no time off or gets paid vacation, which very few such jobs provide. But even with 52 weeks of pay, the family income is $39,000 a year. Before taxes.


I can say without any fear of contradiction that St. Anthony's family income is substantially more than $100,000 a year. I could come closer, but won't.

The executives who are touting those jobs and whining about shortages of skilled workers all make far more than St. Anthony's very comfortable salary. Some of them are in the seven-figure range. Neither the Strib writer nor they will ever have to worry about trying to support a family and educate the kids on $39,000 a year.

We all know why the business guys are pretending that $15 an hour is great pay and that workers should be falling all over themselves for such opportunities. But in failing to lay out the real economics of the situation, St. Anthony made himself part of the propaganda machine –- Wow, folks, look at all those good jobs we provided for those who are willing to acquire skills and work hard!

Unlike many business writers, he really does know better. But, of course, what he did is just what the publisher wants, though I wouldn't say that St. Anthony consciously factored that into his thinking as he wrote his column. Maybe he was careless, maybe just short of time and/or space. Doesn't matter because the effect is the same.

In reading our "modern" newspapers, the ability to read what isn't there is a necessary skill.