I’m a month late on this one, but I only recently heard about Newt Gingrich’s “using schoolchildren as janitors” kerfuffle. Apparently Newt said:
“You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, 14, 16 years of age, fine,” Mr. Gingrich said. “You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”
He’s repeated this idea several times on the campaign trail, causing quite a bit of hyperventilation at The Atlantic, where they connipted:
This suggestion is, on its face, insane. It sounds like a bad Stephen Colbert joke. But if you stop and consider its merits for a minute or two…well no, it’s still quite insane. And if you spend an evening researching the nitty gritty of what public school custodians actually do for a living, it turns out to be downright cruel.
So what do janitors actually do? It’s a lot more than mopping. To get a sense, look over this job description for a New York City public school custodial engineer–a “master janitor,” as Gingrich would put it. He and his team of cleaners and handymen are responsible for cleaning, yes. That part involves hazardous chemicals like hydrochloric acid. They also operate the school’s heating system, do electrical repairs, maintain the school grounds, take care of the HVAC equipment, and handle basic plumbing fixes, among other assorted jobs. I ask: What parent wants a nine-year-old, or even a thirteen-year-old, toying with the HVAC in her school?
He goes on to claim that Newt’s flippant disregard for the real nature of custodial work reflected “a deep disrespect for and ignorance of American work.”
Enter FactCheck. But a few weeks later FactCheck, in their haste to make Newt look foolish, ended up making The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissman look like a complete idiot. FactCheck, took issue with Newt’s concurrent claim that, “… New York City janitors, the most expensive janitors in New York are paid more than the highest paid teachers. The entry-level janitor is paid twice as much as an entry-level teacher. It’s all because of the union.”
FactCheck debunks this claim by pointing out that Gingrich is mixing up entry-level cleaners, who make a little less than entry-level teachers ($37.7K vs $45.5K), with custodial engineers, who make almost twice as much ($81K):
There are several classifications of custodial workers, but the one that probably most closely resembles a janitor is a “cleaner,” said Robert Troeller, president and business manager of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Brooklyn, N.Y. These are the folks who dust, mop and sweep, among other things. Cleaners get paid $18.13 an hour.
So Newt was confused, conflating “custodial engineer” with “janitor.” He might be forgiven, since “custodial engineer” is often used as an inflated or humorous description of a janitorial position (thanks, PC language!).
But how about The Atlantic? Well, as I said above, Weissman ends up looking look a moron. He went off on his rant about how demanding and skilled the requirements for a New York Custodial Engineer were, but Newt was obviously talking about a cleaning position. Everything Weissman said was completely irrelevant, up to and including his claim that Newt was disrespectful of American work. Instead, it looks like it is Weissman who is completely out of touch with labor.
Look, I was a janitor in high school and my first summer in college, and my brother eventually inherited my high school job from me. My dad was also a janitor in high school, and both he and I washed dishes in college (and my brother washed dishes in high school). These jobs were great ways to make some money, take on some responsibility, and get introduced to the working world. It also taught us that no one is “too good” for any sort of job.
The Big Picture. Let’s look at Newt’s major points:
- Cleaners are overpaid w/respect to teachers: Yup, even though they have no degree or skills, they are making more than 80% of what teachers make. Pity the poor teacher who spends 4 years in college and acquires $100K in debt, only to find that cleaners have been earning money for 4 years and have no debt nor any obligation to earn a masters.
- The unions are responsible for these pay scales: Duh.
- Kids could do cleaning jobs: Again, duh. I used to do these jobs in high school (see below).
- Kids could benefit from earning money: Is there any doubt?
- Giving kids jobs puts them on the track for success: I believe that’s true, though it’s a hard thing to prove. I’m pretty sure that it can’t hurt.
I would also posit that Newt’s points are part of a bigger trend in the job market, which has replaced high school and college labor with cheap immigrant labor and unionized careerists. College kids don’t work in the cafeteria or on the janitorial staff anymore, and they don’t come home in the summer to work construction or landscaping jobs like they used to. High school kids have been pushed out of fast food jobs, and middle school and high school kids no longer deliver newspapers.
The labor market has changed in the past 30 years, so that fewer and fewer kids get a chance to get a job and start preparing for adult life. The self-centered, avaricious “Occupy” movement shows us exactly what the penalties can be for denying them that chance.