BANGOR, Maine — John Ratzenberger remembers a different time in the country, when he grew up as a kid in Bridgeport, Conn., and had the luxury of being a kid.
“Our parents would not allow us to be indoors, especially on a Saturday, and simply told us to go outside and play,” said Ratzenberger. “No cell phones, no GPS, no maps, no directions. The only rule was be home before the streetlights came on.”
They’d build tree houses, fix their bikes, take things apart — the basic foundation of skills that would serve them well as adults who needed to know how to paint a house or fix a lawnmower. But at some point, society stopped letting kids just go play and began to devalue the skills that allow workers to make and fix things.
That’s why, he said, manufacturing is declining across the country and why the United States soon may become a third-world country — where the plumbing won’t work, the lights may not go on and the infrastructure will crumble.
Ratzenberger, the actor famous for his “Cheers” role as Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all postman, and for his voice roles in every Pixar movie, has emerged in recent years as a leading advocate for manufacturing. He wrote the book “We’ve Got it Made in America, A Common Man’s Salute to an Uncommon Country,” addressed Congress and its Manufacturing Caucus, and sits on the Center for America board.
He spoke Wednesday evening at the annual Maine State Chamber dinner in Bangor.
His talk had a sense of “when I was a kid” and an overwhelming theme of an America that has lost its way. It played well to the crowd of roughly 500 in a state that still has a strong manufacturing tradition through its paper mills, defense contractors, shipyards and other businesses.
“We’re the greatest civilization the world has ever seen,” said Ratzenberger. “It’s the strength of manufacturing in the United States that keeps the world free.”
But manufacturing has been hit hard in Maine, too. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 50,900 manufacturing jobs in Maine in 2010, down from 58,800 in 2008 — and way down from the roughly 91,000 in 1990.
When he was a child, said Ratzenberger, everyone had an avocation. It may have been their occupation or their hobby at home — building birdhouses or ham radios or gardening. That’s a big change over the last generation, he said.
Children had to take vocational training, he said, recalling a shop teacher who showed him the difference between a ripsaw and a crosscut saw. The teacher was missing a finger and had awful breath, Ratzenberger said, so you wanted to make sure you got your measurements and cuts right so he wouldn’t spend more time than necessary with you.
He suggested changes in that generation have accounted for why manufacturing often has gone overseas. He asked the audience to picture former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill fixing his roof.
“You can imagine Tip O’Neill fixing his roof. Now imagine Nancy Pelosi doing the same thing. That’s not going to happen,” he said, to laughter. “So is it a surprise they don’t care about manufacturing going overseas? They don’t understand the strength of it.”
He talked about the sense of entitlement that he thinks younger generations have today. A CEO friend of his hired a man two years out of college and had to fire him three days later, said Ratzenberger. The employee wasn’t a team player and wanted an office with a window. On the fourth day, the former employee showed up with his mother, Ratzenberger claimed, demanding an apology to assuage her son’s self-esteem.
“I hear variations of that all around the country,” he said.
As part of his talk, he spoke about his new year-long campaign to get communities across the country to add 10 million skilled jobs by 2020. The Maine State Chamber joined the pledge, according to Dana Connors, head of the Chamber.
Connors said Ratzenberger’s talk was “spot on” for Maine, where there is a growing skills gap between open manufacturing positions and workers with the skills to fill them.
“There are tremendous jobs that are going wanting,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Labor forecasts that by 2012, there will be a shortfall of nearly 3 million skilled worker positions in America.
The Chamber also announced its annual awards. Chamber volunteer of the year went to Floyd Rockholt, a Presque Isle businessman. Chamber executive of the year went to Daniel Bookham, executive director of the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce. The president’s recognition award went to Unum. Maine investor awards went to Affiliated Health Care Systems of Bangor, Boyne Resorts (owners of Sunday River and Sugarloaf), D&G Machine Products Inc. of Westbrook, and Fisher Engineering, which has a plant in Rockland with nearly 300 employees.
The Cianchette Business Hall of Fame award went to Robert Reny Sr., founder of the Renys chain, which employs 525 in Maine at 16 stores.