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The Skills Gap and Television

Most of us have heard the term, skills gap recently. The hot-button subject encompassing an aging workforce, threatening to cripple our manufacturing, construction, and maintenance sectors if not addressed within the next few years. This term is in reference to jobs that are either currently vacant and/or extremely difficult to fill because of the high level of specific knowledge required. Tool & Die Makers, Machinists, Welder, and Electricians are all examples of skill positions where there is a widening void of employable candidates. While there are a myriad of reasons given as to how we found ourselves in this situation, I want to discuss perhaps the most superficial and trivial of them all in an attempt to also figure out what happened to the entertainment from my childhood.

I was born at the end of the 1970’s and both of my parents worked, so I spent a fair amount of time watching television. This was fantastic because the programming of the 80’s and early 90’s was magical. I also benefited from re-runs of the great shows throughout the history of television due to syndication and the advent of cable channels such as; TV Land and Nick at Nite. Looking back on the fond memories of countless hours spent in front of the television, I couldn’t help but be reminded of one factor so prevalent in many of the shows of yesterday which simply no longer exists. Where did all of working people go?

Now, before you flip out and think that I am denigrating the the characters on Modern Family or The Big Bang Theory hear me out. The television shows from my formative years played to an audience of the very people who now comprise the aged workforce that is nearing retirement and causing the widening of the skills gap. These shows focused on people and families who earned a living from what were traditionally referred to as blue collar careers. While the persona that Carrol O’Connor embodied as “loveable bigot,” Archie Bunker is outdated and in most cases, reprehensible, it was also satire. One must wonder, what happened to this “average Joe” type on television? Someone who put in 40 plus hours a week working with their hands to come home and relax in their favorite chair. There are still a great deal of people out there who represent this demographic and should be characterized in entertainment.

Probably the most successful, and one of the last, TV representations that accurately captured what it was to be a blue collar family in America was Roseanne. The show, about the Connor family trying to stay afloat in the fictional town of Lanford, IL, was an accurate and beloved interpretation representative of a large portion of American life at the time. Addressing issues such as; both parents working, financial troubles, and even failed businesses, the show resonated with many who were feeling the pains of the shrinking manufacturing landscape that was giving way to our current, and more service based economy. While the show didn’t always construct a positive image of life for an average American family, it did expose the need to realign our workforce and evolve.

While a great deal has changed with regards to television programming in the years since Roseanne, one thing that hasn’t is that an overwhelming number of people are still watching. So why did programming change so drastically? Did the economic boom of the 90’s and the explosion of people attending college play a part? Well, yes. Somewhere along the way, when college was being emphasized as the only way to gain ground in our society, people simply forgot that there was still an abundance of technical careers that weren’t going anywhere. When the individuals who had traditionally graduated high school with enough education to confidently enter the workforce began running out of options, they didn’t turn to technical trades. Instead, the majority of these good hardworking people followed the direction of campaigns such as, “work smarter, not harder,” and took on massive student loan debt to focus on business based programs such as management or marketing. This left engineering and mathematics careers to suffer the most. The very areas where the skills gap is now the deepest.

So how does television play into this? Well, after the manufacturing sector began to shrink and so many began attending colleges in search of a so called, white collar career, television programming completely skipped over the idea of someone being a plumber, machinist, engineer, or other technically trained tradesperson. Where TV had previously represented the working class it completely abandoned the audience with “Must See TV” type programming. A type of disfigured hybrid of fantasy-based writing and comedy where everyone achieves their dream of not really doing anything. Seinfeld was the show about nothing, but at least when George was unemployed he had to move back in with his parents. (Some would say the ultimate punishment.) Many other programs after Roseanne found characters bouncing from one situation to the next with no consequence or financial implications.

Shows like Friends showcased the ease at which anyone could have a giant apartment in New York regardless of your career. The characters in past popular television programming had to exist in some semblance of reality with regards to their socio-economic situation. While Archie Bunker’s house wasn’t fantastic, it was believable that someone could work hard and still live at 704 Hauser Street in Queens. However on Friends, you could be an unemployed actor, struggling caterer, coffee shop waitress, or struggling singer and still have a very successful existence in Manhattan while occupying the kind of square footage that is usually reserved for gallery space.

This legacy of rewarding mediocrity continues today. The show, 2 Broke Girls, follows a destitute heiress and the caustic café waitress who takes her in. Living in another impossibly huge apartment, this time in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the two are a constant reminder that you don’t need hard work because luck favors the… callous? I honestly don’t even know in this case. When the two wish to pursue a business venture, they decide to steal from their current place of employment to subsidize their new undertaking. While I understand that many of the aspects of a show like this are done for effect, they could at least be written slightly better.

While I do not truly think that any of these shows have genuine bearing on decision making or career choice, it is fun to dissect and examine what are culture looks to for entertainment. I live in the Midwest, where many people still have careers in manufacturing and skilled trades and I feel like there is very little out there in terms of relatable entertainment. It seems that even when television decides to showcase actual technical skills, it plays second fiddle to a forced dramatic perspective. The amazing machine work and innovation displayed on shows like American Chopper and Motorcycle Mania were simply along for the ride. (No pun intended.) A much more prevalent focus was always placed on the borderline personalities barely holding it together as functioning members of society.

So how does this bode for the representation of working people on modern television? Can our entertainment play a part in addressing our ever growing skills gap? Who knows? Maybe it is simply nostalgia that has me thinking about the shows of the past and their possible social impact. Yet, if there were a television show today with the wit and social commentary of All in the Family, that addressed issues real working families face the way Roseanne did, then maybe, there would be something worth watching that could also make a difference. To lend some real world connotation it could include a younger family member making the decision to stay home after high school and attend the local technical college in lieu of the ubiquitous university. Of course, why would anyone want to watch that? At least not while there are wonderful delusions on every night about the affordable rent in New York coupled with no interest loans from your friends. While I will continue holding out for more realistic and significant programming, my Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions should prove worthy investments.

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