John Ratzenberger On Why We're Becoming A Third World Country

He gained fame by playing the wiseguy postal worker. But John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff Clavin on the NBC sitcom "Cheers," is nothing but serious now. The actor has found a second career as a social activist. His cause is America's skilled workers. He has advocated for them in documentaries like "Industrial Tsunami" and TV programs like "Made in America," which he hosted for the Travel Channel. And through the Center for America, he has also spearheaded the 10 By 20 Pledge for America, which seeks to grow America's skilled labor workforce by 10 million before 2020. He sat down with AOL Jobs to talk about the cause.

Q&A With John Ratzenberger

You have said we as a country are running out of workers. What do you mean by that?

The average age of the American factory worker is around 57 years old. A lot of people aren't aware of that. Many major corporations, especially in manufacturing, can't find enough workers. The companies can't say anything because it will affect their stock prices. There's a ton of work out there, it's just that there aren't enough skilled people to fill them. We need to inspire the next generation before we run out of people who can make a building and invent things. We've got maybe six to 10 years before the entire workforce is impacted.

So it's a misconception that these are industries that are dying?

Absolutely. There's plenty of things we make in this country that can't be made overseas. You can't build a submarine overseas. You can't build a bulldozer overseas. There's a whole list of things. The jobs are there. We're still the manufacturing giant in the world. Not by much, but we're still ahead. But we will lose it all.

How come this is happening? How come kids don't have these skills anymore?

At the end of World War II, people came back from the war and started raising families -- the baby boomers. The focus was on education because our parents worked with their hands and did hard work. So in the '50s and '60s, the mantra was you have to go to college -- don't work as hard as I did. So everybody had it in their head you had to have a college education in order to succeed. So what we did was cancel shop courses. Manual training, carpentry, plumbing, electricians, masonry. So what we did was mistakenly send everyone to college, and now we have a big void in an area where there's nobody to fill.

How does the Information Age affect your campaign?

There's no such thing. You can make money on the buying and selling of information, but you can't sustain an economy on that. Someone has to grow corn. A computer is not going to do that. Somebody has to pack it, ship it, make it into succotash or popcorn. That's where the economy is. But the Information Age helps in sending out the message. We have to turn to our young people and make sure they have skills. That they know how to use a hammer, know how to use a wrench. That's important if we want to sustain a society.

You are interested in changing the image of blue collar workers. How do we do that?

Well, I term them essential workers. Shaquille O'Neal's job is not essential. Lady Gaga's job is not essential. The essential people are the ones who prepare and maintain the air conditioning in this building, or repair the elevators. Those are the essential people, because without them we go nowhere. So the media for the last 30 or 40 years have depicted people with toolboxes as being stupid, or drunk. So why would a kid growing up and seeing that depiction on a movie screen want to be that? It seems like we've become a society that honors failure and not success. We should be honoring the people who make it all work. You have to get the writers or producers and say, why not have a sitcom or film based on a bricklayer, or a truck driver. And give them dignity and respect.

How can we change our educational system, and champion vocational and trade schools?

The communities themselves have got to put their arms around this because it's all local. The guidance counselors and high schools should visit factories, places that manufacture things, and see with their eyes that it's not like what it was in the 1930s. It's a very clean operation. People are enjoying nice salaries and living great lives. The view of most guidance counselors is that if you don't go to college you're a failure. And it's just not true. The manual arts have always taken precedence over the fine arts. There's no exception to that rule. Michelangelo couldn't have gone to work until someone built that ceiling.

What about the unemployed?

There's a lot of unemployed people. But locally, someone will always need their roof fixed. There's always work to be had on your block.... In the 1950s, if a bicycle broke, you had to figure out how to fix it. Now we just throw it out because it's so cheap. Well, then we also deprive that child the ability to be self-sufficient, to see a problem and fix it. Now, we raise people who don't have skills to get to the solution -- the entitlement generation. People need to grow up with these skills.

Are these jobs that immigrants occupy?

With illegal immigrants, the operative word is illegal. So let's talk about legal immigrants. For legal immigrants, they are hopefully on the path to becoming Americans. So we're really just talking about Americans. Whether they're newly arrived or people who have been here for generations, it's the same skill set. There are people who graduate high school all across the country who don't have the ability to read a ruler. How many people under 20 years old can you give a yardstick to and say, "Give me six and three-eighths." There's an awful lot of educated people who can't do that. And that's astounding. Everything that's built has to be measured.

AOL Jobs Asks
John Ratzenberger
5 Quick Questions

1. What was your first job? Sweeping up barbershops when I was nine. I knew I wanted to buy property, and I knew we had no money as a family. So I talked to all the local barbershops to let me sweep.

2. What inspires you? When I meet people who are working hard and serious at their dreams. That inspires me.

3. What is the most important trait needed to succeed? I think it's simple. The Judeo-Christian ethic of get up in the morning, put your hand on something useful and be responsible for yourself. And it's really one foot in front of the other. Eventually, you'll get there. Just don't try to go too fast, or you'll get a nosebleed.

4. What is your biggest challenge? Getting the mainstream press to take seriously the message that we are running out of skilled workers in the United States and that may well be our undoing. That's been frustrating.

5. What is the best career advice you ever received? Don't leave your wallet in the dressing room.

What do these changes say about our country?

Well it's happened slowly. It's like the experiment with a frog in boiling water. You put a frog in boiling water, it will just jump out. But you put a frog in cold water, turn up the heat incrementally, the frog doesn't notice and will just succumb. That's been happening to us. We've always assumed there was someone we could just call to help and fix things. And slowly that's becoming not the case. There will come a time when you buy a house somewhere in Connecticut, and you call to find a bricklayer to fix a chimney or put in a path, and you're not going to be able to find one. And that's when you'll have to be self-sufficient.

How did you get involved with "Made in America," and how does it influence your work?

It was really an offshoot of me growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It's an industrial town. The lens I see life through is always that. Someone has to build things. It doesn't just happen, but we've become a country that thinks it does. And so a producer came to me because they knew I was a former carpenter. So, in my travels doing "Made in America," I could see that most of the workers were over 50 years old. And I started digging a little deeper, and CEOs would tell me, 'Yeah, we just don't know where the next generation of workers is coming from.'"

Any final thoughts?

If we don't come to grips with this problem, and teach our kids marketable skills, we're going to end up like the Roman Empire. When we run out of plumbers, or people who maintain the water system, from the reservoir to the faucet in your house, and there's no one around to fix it, we become a Third World country. That's all a Third World country really is. You turn the light switch on, and it may or may not work. And that's where we're headed. You can't see it now, but it's there. Ten years is just going to be too late. We won't be able to turn it around.

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"The manual arts have always taken precedence over the fine arts. There's no exception to that rule. Michelangelo couldn't have gone to work until someone built that ceiling."

No argument. But studies abound demonstrating how the fine arts make us all smarter. Students who study the arts are more apt to become rocket scientists, entrepreneurs, etc. One study taught one group of 5 year olds computer skills and another group got piano lessons. The group that got piano lessons developed a type of cognitive skill that improved their math and science scores. Music majors have the highest acceptance rate into medical school of any college major. Incoming fresman music majors typically have among the highest 2 or 3 SAT averages of any other major.

I'm a musician. But my dad taught me how to fix stuff. We had a farm. We didn't call a repairman except for tractor motor work. I can fix or build anything. But I'm also a musician who can play at least a little of every instrument I've ever picked up. We've cut arts out of schools to focus on math and science. The arts would have bolstered our math and science abilities. But some people can't put two and two together.

April 11 2014 at 8:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Um, I'm a generation behind John. My dad was a union blue collar utility worker. He told me not to do what he did. He told me to go to college. He knew that wages and benefits were going down for the "essential" workers. My generation cannot provide the same standard of living to our family by doing what my dad did. I studied it a while back. Adjusted for inlfation, base pay for a current employee with my dad's company, doing exactly what he did, is now 2/3 of what he made 30 years ago, and thanks to technology, only a fraction of them are needed today.

It's pretty easy for John to say we're losing this. The other side of the equation is that, no, the salaries are not that good, nor are the employment prospects.

April 11 2014 at 7:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You have hit the nail on the head.
I learned from my dad and grandad how to fix most any thing. I went to a Trade School and took Machine shop because I liked Machinery, and it required you to take Algebra, Geometry, Trig, Chemistry, Physics, Drafting, and Foundry. Our school was a complete Manufacturing facility. We Designed and Made a lot of parts for the City and other schools. I also liked Radio's and learned from my dad how to fix and build simple ones. and was in the repair business,for a few years, but didn' like the long hours of being in business so I went to work for General Motors. when I first went to work there, They Promoted from within. Sometime around the 60's, the colledges complained that they were not using the people they were turning out, so GM started to hire some of them as Forman. Most of them could not even run a simple drill press. and did not know how to do the nesessary paper work that went with the job, So us setup men, did it for them. As far as the shop goes, the dumbest workers in the department was smarter that some of the forman. When I got my 30 years in to retire. The Plant supperviser asked me why was retireing. I told him I was leaving and takeing my brain with me, good luck!!

October 23 2013 at 8:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Roma Peace

I am from the USA, living in Australia. I cannot agree more with the fact that in America tradesmen are not viewed as successful. There is a misconception that if a young person doesn't go to college, they are somewhat of a failure or not as highly regarded. It is so unfortunate. I did not recognize the problem until I moved to Australia. Here, "Tradies", as they are called are very well regarded and kids who choose that option are actually offered a pathway to accommodate their choice of career. They offer trade schools and apprenticeships. Kids who are interested in a trade vs white-collar are encouraged to follow that path and are given options and guidance to make that happen. It is very common to find a welder living next door to an attorney because tradies are very well-paid here for their work. They are very skilled and well-compensated for it.

I appreciate what you are doing to bring this issue to light and hopefully elicit change....before it's too late.

December 26 2012 at 3:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The decline of this country is all in the corporations and bankers hands. People out there are skilled and can generate business for themselves. The banks arent giving out to small business that support our local economies. They are in fact doing just the opposite.
I myself am somewhat of a mechanical engineer. I have started a few companies, and i need to expand. I need to hire. I need more vehicles for my fleet. I need more employees.
Not one single bank is willing to invest in my models because i dont have doctored books or have not been around long enough. I have valid businesses that provide true services to the community, but still i cant expand and hire people. Why?

Banks are requiring collateral values over the amount that i am seeking to loan. They are also not listening to us when we walk into them at all. I feel like a third world citizen when my familly has been running small business and corporations in our community for over 35 years now, and every time
I walk into a bank THE BANKERS TELL ME TO GET OUT OF THE BANK because i dont have a
million dollar corporation like all the elitists.

Go To HELL all you greedy little coporate sellouts! Your time of reckoning will come!

October 24 2011 at 10:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is a right on article that not only defines the problem, but has in it the steps to the solutions. It is practical. A key element though is getting the media and Hollywood on board with the steps. They have been undermining the ideas shown here. They could as easily help be part of the solution. Hollywood needs to give less attention to the disfunctional types and more attention to the people that really make everything work. That also would not be most of the people in the various aspects of the entertainment industry - they are optional, not necessary. And right now most of Hollywood and the music industry are doing more harm than good. They elevate the bad guys and gals.

October 17 2011 at 11:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am 17 years old. I make things with my own 2 hands. My dad's a handyman. I couldn't agree with this article more. John Ratzenberger for president! We all need to wake up and see this. I say we make a movie... Make it a MacGyver-type person that's just an ordinary factory worker or other manual worker [with a toolbox]and have him save the day. Maybe then people will realize it's ok to skip college and become an American worker!

October 11 2011 at 11:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't know if I agree with this or not. I don't see this happening in our area. The repairmen I hire are all in their 30's or 40's. It's too bad they are not paid more. That's good for me, I guess. I have been having some health issues this summer and I hired a young woman in her 40's to clean for me. She has a degree with a double major in history and map reading. Her husband has his degree in social work and builds cabinets. As people need work, they will drift to the areas that provide that work. As for the community giving skiiled workers the respect, there is something to be said for that. We all need to work on respect for each other. There are such great divides in our society among the haves and have nots which raised to an unprecedented level during the Bush years and continues.

October 08 2011 at 2:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Good article: Perhaps the USA can learn something from Germany, Japan, South Korea & other makers of fine toys...

October 07 2011 at 11:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John W Hindes

It's all about innovation and efficiency.

We can innovate are way to super efficiency and live better healthier lives for it.

The ethos of "Less is More" is hard to understand in our current consumer culture, but once you truly understand that happiness is not to be found in any commodity and living within your means invokes true understanding of life, you will be astonished at the simplicity of life.

The only question now is - Can we get out in front of this, or will it run us over?

China won't always loan us money for our oil addiction, in fact there own dependence on the global oil markets will mean they must take a loss and dump our currency just to lock us out of the global oil supplies.

So can we bring down this seven headed beast we built, or will it humble us with force?

Truly, the meek shall inherit the earth.

Hint, the 1% who own 99% of the wealth are in love with beast.

If you are offended by the biblical metaphors, just use what ever cultural mythology you understand, Lord Shiva works just as well.


October 07 2011 at 10:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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