While Lawyers Scheme, Useful Trades Wither Away

The latest personnel shortage to make the newspapers popped

up in the Police Department, which had taken shortcuts in its background checks

of applicants to the Police Academy. It appears that, ere long, some of New

York’s finest will have petty-crime convictions-but perhaps that will prove of

assistance to them when “relating” to the criminals they are charged with

capturing and putting in cages.

I’m never sure what the word “relating” means. In this case,

I hope it doesn’t indicate such a strong affinity with law-breakers that the

new police officers, instead of arresting the malefactors, decide to go into

business with them. The possibility is not mere satirical fancy. The history of

metropolitan police forces, including New York’s, is heavy with examples of crooks

in blue, the most recent of which occurred in Washington, D.C., where, a few

years ago, they dropped hiring standards and soon regretted it.

The newspaper reports allude to lowering the physical

qualifications for matriculating at the Police Academy. This and other

allegations of a dilution in the quality of recent candidates is denied by

officialdom, but what are their denials worth? While the Mayor and the rest of ‘em are telling us not to worry, we can be

pardoned for wondering what happens with police officers who are too weak, too

inept or too cowardly to wade in and grab evildoers by the scruff of the neck

and hurl them into the back of a paddy wagon. If cops dare not go hand-to-hand

with crooks and riotous individuals, they will wind up using cattle prods,

pepper spray and mace, or batons and guns. Or they’ll run away.

Difficulty in recruiting people for indispensable

occupations is not confined to the police of New York City. A number of

correctional facilities, or what we used to call jails and prisons, are running

short on guards, and replacing them isn’t easy.

As the teacher shortage gets worse, the administrators are

getting more ingenious. Do you remember last year’s Board of Education

recruitment ads in the subways, telling the riders that “Four out of five

fourth graders in our city’s most challenged schools fail to meet state

standards in reading and writing. Are you willing to do something about it?”

School officials in cities all over the country are

importing teachers, sight unseen, from Chile, China, Russia, France, Hungary,

Australia, Austria, New Zealand, South Africa and the Philippines. God only

knows how many of them speak decent English, but it’s gotten to the point any

warm body in front of the classroom will have to do.

The New York Times

has reported on the uncertain future of vocational training in the New York

public schools: retiring teachers can’t be replaced, enrollments are dropping,

and there are new demands on students to pass what are, for inexplicable

reasons, called “academic tests.” A well-run vocational school ought to be able

to include all the academics any man or woman needs. Benjamin Franklin educated

himself while apprenticed to learn the printing trade, and H. L.

Mencken-belletrist and patron saint of newspapering-went to a Baltimore trade

school and not the Columbia School of Journalism.

Gray-haired plumbers,

elderly masons, machinists with just the slightest palsy of the hand-the

tradesmen of America are visibly aging. While business is energetically forcing

early retirement on thousands of white-collar workers who perhaps were never

needed, cabinet-makers, electricians and air-conditioning technicians are

subjected to the cajoling blandishments of people begging them to postpone

retirement since they are the next thing to irreplaceable.

And then behold the career of one Vickie L. Milazzo,

formerly a critical-care nurse and now a lawyer and founder of Medical-Legal

Consulting Institute Inc., a company that teaches registered nurses how to help

lawyers sue other nurses, doctors, hospitals, insurance and drug companies, and

anybody or anything else from whom money can be gotten. Legal nurse

consultants-the name the enterprising Ms. Milazzo has given this new

occupation-make up to $150 an hour, compared to nursing nurses, who receive

around $20 an hour.

The dearth of competent

nursing care has made a trip to the hospital as frightening as it is dangerous.

Of the tens of thousands who needlessly perish every year, some significant

fraction of those deaths by neglect, accident, gratuitous infection, etc., are

traceable to the ever-shrinking size of the nursing corps. Isn’t it odd how we

are overwhelmed by clouds of flea-bitten persons with papers attesting to their

being practitioners of one sort of questionable therapy or another, but on the

cancer ward, there aren’t enough professionals to cover all the shifts?

Going to vocational school and learning a trade or a craft

has been discouraged by the round-the-clock propaganda about everybody going to

college. Endless lectures about how working with your hands is unworthy and how

anybody who does it is a dumb cluck have taken their toll. Young people have

been taught that scores of useful occupations are unworthy of them. And if

there was any doubt about how little occupations like teaching and nursing are

valued, compare the pay scales, not to mention the respect given to those in

other occupations whose utility escapes immediate appreciation. Stock analysts,

C.E.O.’s of money-losing companies, grief counselors, deputy assistant

deputies, conflict-resolvers, students of trends, anyone referred to as a “guru,” experts on the two-daddy family,

drug czars and inhuman resource directors are among the scores of pseudo

occupations drawing money, prestige and attention away from the recruitment and

retention of people we must have.

Fifty years ago, the assurance that society was training

people in the occupations and specialties it needed was the federal

government’s responsibility, carried out through the Selective Service System.

Boys and men engaged in work the government didn’t deem essential to the

running of things got put in the army. Those studying or doing essential things

were selected not to serve and, in some instances, given financial help to

continue their schooling. The manipulation and shaping of the manpower pool was

called “channeling,” a word which today has a different and intellectually

tawdry meaning.

The rationale for this kind of planning was the struggle

against Communism, but the Selective Service System’s pattern of draft

exemptions showed its priorities were anything but narrowly military. It had

more than a passing interest in the health of the whole society.

Channeling is gone with the Cold War that used to justify

it, and in its place we have nothing except the obdurate assertion that, by the

action of a never-described alchemic process, the needs of the commonweal are

served. “Commonweal” is a word seldom heard in a society whose heroes are those

mud-bespattered champions who have emerged with the loudest oink and the big

ego of individualism-gone-amok. And so we have ever-growing surpluses of that

which we don’t need, and ever-shrinking shortages of that which we do.

Our best-run companies and other institutions plan, plan and

plan all the time-which can’t be easy in a society that has no goals except

getting bigger. Without the compulsion of the Selective Service System, many

ways can be found to channel people into vital occupations. For example,

student loans and grants might be restricted: make fields like law and finance

and cinema ineligible for student aid, and go the other way for those studying

in the fields where we actually need people. For once, the tax laws might be

manipulated in favor of useful occupations and services.

I don’t know how you get people to think about what’s

happening to them. Perhaps next winter, when yet more parents see that there

aren’t even any substitute teachers, not to instruct, but to baby-sit their

children; or perhaps when a relative lies for four hours, unattended, on an

emergency-room gurney; or perhaps while wondering what condition the basement

will be in when the plumber comes-if he comes-in four days … perhaps then it

may finally occur to some that matters are a bit askew. In the meantime, none

for all and all for none.