At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square

What Manufacturing Teaches Us about the Dignity of Work

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There’s something quintessentially American about the manufacturing industry. Many people from older generations possess personal ties to it in some form or fashion.

However, the nature of manufacturing has changed as demand for technology has advanced. Opinions of factory jobs are often split between disdain for less technical labor and fear at change in the job landscape. I’d like to unpack some thoughts from Dr. Preston Jones about the former.

A Better Life in and out of the Workplace

As he shared in an email, Jones, a history professor at John Brown University, often leads discussions with workers and floor managers at local factories. The discussions focus “on the ways that basic personal and ethical traits – integrity, honor, trustworthiness, dependability, discipline – tend to make for a better life in and out of the workplace.”

Prior to his visit to a chicken processing plant, Jones spent time at furniture and rubber hose-making plants. But at the time of his visit to the chicken plant, he was unprepared to address the specific needs of individuals in jobs that are externally as mundane as searching a conveyer belt of chicken nuggets for deformed specimens.

Not all manufacturing jobs are this tedious, but this task stood out to Jones as particularly thankless.

The Inherent Worth of All Work

Based on recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Congressional Budget Office, manufacturing jobs make up roughly 8.3 percent of current employment.

That’s over 12 million individuals. Many – though certainly not all – of these jobs include prosaic tasks we may think many would struggle to enjoy.

Jones reflected,

Booker T. Washington rightly criticized an outlook that sees hard labor as a “badge of degradation, of inferiority.” But if in my short visit at the plant I felt that my own humanity was under assault, I wondered what it would be like to spend hours, weeks, and months there. Of course, employee turnover is very high. Workers move on. But the enduring social price is the sense that this labor is demeaning, dehumanizing.

Because the work is hard and we may not be called to that particular job, we may be tempted to devalue the work. Instead, we should instead try to learn from it.

Just as each body part plays an essential role in the functioning of the entire body, as Paul explains in I Corinthians, so does each productive job in the functioning of a society. Each job that engages the individual in productive, helpful activity affirms his or her call to work.

Particularly when a job does not result in an obvious, tangible benefit to society, we are tempted to be disdainful toward the job and the individual in that position. We are equally likely to pass judgment on jobs we consider beneath us and those that are out of our sphere of influence or knowledge.

We might be just as judgmental of a Wall Street financial broker as of a factory worker because we don’t completely understand how their job creates value. Or, we might feel ashamed of our jobs because we somehow think that there is no dignity in a job that does not explicitly work for the kingdom. But this is not true.

The Dignity Found in Work

Jones suggested that, on a surface level, even a mundane job might allow an individual to:

  • Provide for his or her family.
  • Engage in honest work that affirms his or her dignity.
  • Contribute to the lives of others.
  • Develop habits and disciplines that can be put to use in later jobs.

A job that allows one to develop any or all of these things is not wasteful.

In closing, Dr. Jones observed,

These workers play an important role in the endlessly complicated fabric of the American economy. Nothing can or should be romanticized. But such workers should know that what they do does matter – it does contribute to society and people’s lives; it helps to keep the economy moving; it gives people a means to get started or re-started in life; it provides the workers themselves with the means to help others.

At IFWE, we believe that all work is valuable. We were designed to reflect the creativity of the One who designed and brought us into being. We need to be proactive about affirming the dignity of others in their work, just as we need to possess a balanced, honest understanding of our own value in society and to our God.

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  • Kevin Raymond

    this is something i carry with me to help me remember” hoos” i am. DISCIPLINE : thank GOD every morning when you get up that you have something to do which must be done, whether you like it or not .being forced to work and forced to do your best,will breed in you temperance,self control,diligence,strength of will,content,and a hundred other virtues which the idle never know. charles kingsley

  • Jonathan McGuire

    There is another angle to this concept (that, with fairness to Dr. Bradley, is a bit beyond the scope of her post). I’m a unabashed devotee of Lean philosophy. In over 20 years of experience in an around manufacturing, in the US, Mexico, China, Taiwan, etc.., the most critical component in developing and sustaining a culture of continuous improvement in manufacturing is to value the front line operator. And one of the most important ways of valuing these individuals is to make sure that they do not see their jobs as mundane. It is primarily the job of leadership to show them that their jobs are not mundane as well as making sure that their jobs are, in actually, not mundane.

    Unfortunately, there is a growing leadership culture that sees fit to brow beat front line folks to lie to themselves about the nature of their jobs rather than actually seeking to utilize the influence of their leadership role to seek excellence in all things…especially for those lowest on the pay scale. It is even more unfortunate that this mindset is even more common among church leadership. We’ve all heard sermons by well stroked senior pastor extolling the virtues of doing the lowest and least prominent tasks in church life…and we’re all aware that, in most cases, this same pastor has never taken up those tasks himself.

    The good news is that if a manufacturing manager seeks to value those on the front line, success will be difficult to stop and that particular workplace can become a magnet for serious minded operators who desire to see their work amount to something important and to build their own careers and provide for their families.

    A culture of engagement always trumps a culture of the mundane.

  • Matt

    While I agree that all work is valuable, this post also begs the question of whether what is most economically efficient is always most beneficial for human flourishing. I think the obvious answer is a resounding “no.” While the economies of scale that result from modern manufacturing methods are economically beneficial for society, the nature of the work is often less meaningful for the workers that perform the most basic, repetitive tasks. This is not at all to diminish the value of what they do; simply to say that we should look at economic systems that were created with wealth maximization in mind with a critical eye. Those systems may not reflect God’s values as much as man’s. I am not advocating against everything within our economic systems. I am an MBA-wielding employee of an industrial multinational and a lifelong student of economics. But I think we glaze over problems in our economic environment because we make too many assumptions about the status quo being naturally good.

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