Makers and Takers

MAKERS AND TAKERS/Image: Michael Moffa

“Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer—except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs.”—narrator George Orwell, in Animal Farm

In the April 1st online edition of the Wall Street Journal, an article by WSJ senior economics writer Steven Moore was published with the eye-catching title ”We’ve Become a Nation of Takers, Not Makers”, featuring the scary prominent standfirst  “More Americans work for the government than in manufacturing, farming, fishing, forestry, mining and utilities combined.”

At first blush, this sounds bad. Images of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Animal Farm and the film based on it (complete at spring to mind: Gluttonous dictatorial pigs and their fiercely obedient guard-dog minions gorging and enriching themselves on a cornucopia of food they never help produced, save for commanding its production.

True, Orwell’s tyrannical commissar pigs “Napoleon” and “Squealer” did facilitate trade with the non-fowl two-legged fouls—the humans, and got fabulously rich in the process. Animal Farm did prosper—but only on the creaking and broken backs of the other animals, the true producers.

The Bad News

Are things that bad in modern America? Is the U.S. divided into too many takers and too few makers?—and if it is,  you may wonder what your role as a recruiter is in contributing to or helping to reverse what appears to be a massive shift away from primary production to non-production. On February 14, reported that from 2000 through 2010 the U.S. lost an average of 50,000 manufacturing jobs per month. That’s a shift that looks like a precipitous slide.

Then there is this worrying Manufacturing & Technology News headline, dated February 3, 2011:  “Intelligence Director Will Look At National Security Implications Of U.S. Manufacturing Decline” ( –and for good reason, e.g., the navigation system of the US Army’s Abrams M1A2 main battle tank is vulnerably dependent on samarium, one of the REEs (Rare Earth Elements), of which China currently holds 95% of the world’s stockpiles.

You may, upon reviewing the WSJ report and its cited stats, find yourself asking, “Am I placing a producer, or a consumer?”—even though it may be argued that is a deceptive, albeit tempting, dichotomy. After all, when was the last time you placed a foundry worker  or steel company CEO?  Of course, you place high-powered candidates who “make things happen”, but how many actually make things, or at least directly supervise or contribute to making things? How many of these “movers and shakers” are also makers?

In your defense, it can be argued that to the extent that declines in production are systemic and beyond your power as a recruiter and that of your high-powered candidate, both of you may be powerless to reverse the trend.

For example, Moore notes that “surveys of college graduates are finding that more and more of our top minds want to work for the government. Why? Because in recent years only government agencies have been hiring, and because the offer of near lifetime security is highly valued in these times of economic turbulence.” Even if these government-funded jobs are not taking-jobs with the IRS, they are, in many instances, seen as at best non-making, and sometimes make-work jobs.

Moore cites prima facie gloomy trends his headline captures:

  • “Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government.”
  • “Nearly half of the $2.2 trillion cost of state and local governments is the $1 trillion-a-year tab for pay and benefits of state and local employees.”
  • “Every state in America today except for two—Indiana and Wisconsin—has more government workers on the payroll than people manufacturing industrial goods.”
  • California “now has an incredible 2.4 million government employees—twice as many as people at work in manufacturing. New Jersey has just under two-and-a-half as many government employees as manufacturers. Florida’s ratio is more than 3 to 1. So is New York’s.”

Set against a backdrop of city and state financial turmoil, skyrocketing trade deficits with China—that in 2010, Forbes reports, produced 11 times as much steel as the U.S., severe unemployment, deep pockets of declining infrastructure, a weakening dollar and other economic and financial woes, the WSJ statistics appear to suggest something ominous, depressing and, for some, guilt-inducing, as recital of the dark data invites reflection on what we may have done personally to contribute more to these problems than to their solutions.

Any Good News for Manufacturing?

In mitigation of this gloom-and-doom, Moore is quick to point out that one reason for job losses in the U.S. is that there have been “hugely beneficial productivity improvements in such traditional industries as farming, manufacturing, financial services and telecommunications. These produce far more output per worker than in the past. The typical farmer, for example, is today at least three times more productive than in 1950.”   He adds that, in addition, under the pressures of recession-induced downsizing, Yankee ingenuity has come to the fore to confirm that as always “necessity is the mother of invention”, in the form of greater efficiencies through better job and resource management. For example,  manufacturing firms are shortening the distance between job tasks to centralize the production process and literally save steps.

However, as counter-evidence to this claim, there are the observations of a joint Stanford Center for Economic Performance, Harvard Business School, London School of Economics 2010 study titled “Americans Do I.T. Better: U.S. Multinationals and the Productivity Miracle”, in which it is stated that “the majority of the sectors responsible for the U.S. productivity acceleration are outside manufacturing, such as retailing and wholesaling.”

Nonetheless, within the domain of exclusively manufacturing-related news, some of it seems clearly good:

  • “The Institute for Supply Management’s factory index increased to 61.4 percent in February from 60.8 in January. Anything over 50 means manufacturing is growing. Over 60 means it is growing big time. (Jerry Jasinowski, Fmr. President of the National Association of Manufacturers, Huffington Post, March 4, 2011)
  • “…America remains by far the No. 1 manufacturing country. It out-produces No. 2 China by more than 40 percent. U.S. manufacturers cranked out nearly $1.7 trillion in goods in 2009, according to the United Nations…. What’s changed is that U.S. manufacturers have abandoned products with thin profit margins, like consumer electronics, toys and shoes. They’ve ceded that sector to China, Indonesia and other emerging nations with low labor costs.” (Paul Wiseman, Yahoo-AP News, January 31, 2011)
  • “U.S. productivity growth doubled from 2008 to 2009, then doubled again in 2010, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.” (again, Paul Wiseman, AP News, March 31, 2011)

The Hole in the “Maker vs. Taker” Dichotomy

On reflection, the attention-grabbing opposition of “maker” vs. “taker”, scary though its Orwellian Animal Farm associations and  implications are, is far too facile. When you place a candidate in an insurance company, an I.T. service corporation, or with a health services provider, it is true that you are not placing a “maker”. But then, you are not placing a “taker” either. The bulk of your placements are for positions that directly or indirectly support the makers and non-maker others, who, nonetheless, in turn themselves somehow, but ultimately, support or will become makers.

Yes, some of your placements will be for jobs devoted to purely service-based support of completely non-producing consumers, e.g., geriatric services. But such services for the elderly or the disabled are in support of life-long producers eligible for their earned retirement rewards and protection—unlike the hapless Animal Farm workhorse, “Boxer”, sent to the glue factory by the ruling pigs after being worn out and disabled.

Much as many top dollars trickle down through the economy to feed America’s non-maker infants, the salaries paid those you place are often for services to those who have yet to produce anything, as well as to those who once produced so much.

Moreover, the people you place almost always stimulate multifarious kinds of making and production, e.g., of ICU equipment in hospitals. To make this point through a crude but vivid question by analogy, it can be asked whether a paid NFL football cheerleader is to regarded as merely a taker because he or she has not “made” a touchdown for the team? In addition to overlooking the economy’s services that support past and future makers, the  black-and-white “maker-taker”  dichotomy leaves out those whose jobs serve as “maker catalysts” or “maker shakers”.

A second objection to the reduction of all of us to makers or takers is this: To equate the “maker-taker” dichotomy with that of the “producer-consumer” is ultimately as unwarranted as it is tempting.  This is because making and producing, although related, are not identical. Even though this should be obvious to all, it apparently isn’t to some. But an understanding of any service industry makes it clear that although many services make nothing, with the exception of things like insurance contracts or Big Macs, they produce economic and other utilities, such as peace of mind and joy, in addition to contributions to GDP.

What You Can Do

Hence, there is no warrant for guilt or angst about your not placing candidates in primary production industries and sectors. On the contrary, in your job placements, there is ample justification for your taking pride in having done something good as well as having done something well.

However, at the same time, there is no room for complacency, for to the extent that national security and continued prosperity may depend on having enough makers, someone like you will have to bring more makers and shakers together. Given the opportunity to do so, you should make the most of it…

….and let them make the rest.

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