One thing the financial crisis shows is that the United States is in trouble because Americans have stopped making stuff.
It used to be that we made a lot of stuff: televisions, clothes, washing machines, radios, typewriters, shoes, telephones, and furniture. And we also used to make the stuff out of which stuff was made: steel, aluminum, plastic, rubber, glass, and electrical components. Today that's largely made overseas. They send us their stuff and we send them our money.
It also used to be that Americans liked to make stuff. Think of all the things Thomas Edison invented. Or consider Henry Ford, who made the car affordable, perfected the assembly line, and paid workers a decent wage. Countless others, such as my grandfather, worked as toolmakers and machinists because they liked to work with their hands. Today we rely on people around the world to do that innovation for us.
To be sure, outsourcing has some benefits, but the danger in abrogating our desire to make things is that, in doing so, we forget what made America great. It wasn't manipulating money; it was hard work and persistence. It wasn't "flipping houses"; it was having a dream and being patient and self-sacrificing to achieve that dream. It wasn't speculative gambling; it was belief in a line of labor that rewarded honest risk. Forgetting that contributes to America's deterioration.
Nowadays, young people want to work in the financial industry (at least until recently). While money managers may be worthy occupations – we do need capital to meet payroll and buy the goods and machinery used to make stuff – focusing solely on such jobs removes us from the mainstream of making useful things, which, in turn, provide jobs and help to make everyday life more enjoyable and productive.
This is where we have to start questioning what's at stake. Are we truly satisfied with letting someone else make everything we need? If so, when the time comes for repair and maintenance, who will do the work?
Young people today are not encouraged to work with their hands. It's thought to be demeaning. But working with your hands to create something new is energizing and rewarding. It boosts self-esteem. Even better, it helps you see how something can be improved. Let's not forget that Ford and the Wright brothers were mechanics before they became innovators. They saw first hand how things worked so they could make them work better.
Historically, young people were encouraged to learn a trade. This not only taught them the value of hard work, it also gave them a sense of self-reliance and community. The farmer could not only plow the ground, he could also fix the plow and help his neighbors.
Today's schools must help teach our young people the value of manual labor and help us take advantage of the greatest place to be for innovation. A Japanese neighbor visiting a US factory told me once that he envied Americans because they did not accept cultural limitations in improving the way something is made. He said that you could never go against the grain like that in Japan.
The US just can't afford to squander this perfect climate for jobs and progress by not placing value in innovation or the act of working with one's hands.
This current financial mess brings with it a lot of challenges: energy, housing, crumbling infrastructure – to name just three. But the "can-do spirit" is still alive in America.
We just need to encourage it in our young people. We can begin by testing students for a mechanical aptitude. Those who show promise should be encouraged by a coalition of schools and industry to work on real-world projects. That step alone will help place the value back in making stuff and pave the way to return to innovation at a time when we need it most.