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.
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.