Everywhere we go, we all see the same thing: “Help Wanted” signs in the storefronts of small businesses and restaurants. The words are plastered on all the entrances of big-box stores. They grab our attention from roadside billboards sponsored by manufacturers, trucking companies, and other large employers.
We scratch our heads and wonder how this can be when the starting wage at fast food restaurants has climbed to $15 per hour or more. Employers of all kinds offer signing bonuses of $500 to $5,000.
Last year, those who were “non-essential” workers couldn’t go to work because of the pandemic. COVID-19 lockdowns kept us at home. Now, when people can go to work, the plethora of “Help Wanted” signs make us ask, “Where are the people who want to work?”
Contrast our current worker shortage to the realities of the Great Depression when people were desperate to find work as unemployment rose to 25 percent! Consider the iconic depression-era photo, “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” (Ebbets, Charles. Lunch atop a Skyscraper. 1932. Photograph.). While originally staged as a publicity stunt to promote the construction of the new Rockefeller Center, it quickly became a symbol of hope for a nation struggling to put food on the table and provide housing for its families during the Great Depression.
In this epic photo with Central Park in the background, we see workers casually having lunch on a construction beam 850 feet above New York City while helping to build the Rockefeller Center. Working so high above ground, these laborers had little safety gear. John Rasenberger, author of “High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline” described it this way, “The pay was good. The thing was, you had to be willing to die.” The Rockefeller Center construction project employed 250,000 workers during the Great Depression.
The 2012 documentary “Men at Lunch,” by filmmakers and brothers Seán and Eamonn Ó Cualáin, tells the story behind the photo and debunks the rumor that the photo was fake. During the DOC NYC Film Festival where the film was screened, the festival’s senior programmer, Mystelle Brabbee, described the scene in the photo from 1932, saying, “Beauty, service, dignity, and humor dangling 56 stories above the midstream rush of the metropolis, all summarized in this moment.”
Do we blame today’s significant shortage of willing workers on government policies? Are employers themselves responsible for this predicament they find themselves in? Or is the answer something more fundamental than that?
Is it possible that many people have lost sight of the inherent dignity and value of work?
To rediscover work’s inherent dignity and value, we need to go back to the beginning. Far back to the beginning. According to Scripture, the first Person to show up on Monday for work was God Himself. The book of Genesis opens with these words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). It then goes on to detail God’s majestic work in creating the oceans, the animals, the plants, and mankind. God is the Original Worker. Therefore, all work, as He designed it, is inherently good.
Genesis tells us another truth about work. It is part of God’s creation plan that man should work. We are made in the image of this God who works, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them…The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 1:27; 2:15). He assigned Adam and Eve to work and cultivate the lush paradise known as the Garden of Eden.
Although our work can be hard, sweaty and exhausting, frustrating and disappointing, that does not mean it has lost any inherent dignity and value. It still is intended to accomplish God’s good and loving purposes in our lives. Solomon, the wisest man of his age, wrote, “Then I realized it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun…Moreover when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-19).
Beyond the dignity and value of providing for our needs and those of others through our labors, work is also intended to bring a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives. It was Mark Twain who once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.”
Our work can help answer the question of why we were born. Indeed, unless we fully utilize the talents, gifts, and abilities given to us, we may be left with a lingering sense of unfulfillment and frustration with our lives. Not only will we miss the self-actualizing value of work, but also, we will forfeit the many opportunities that could be ours. As many believe Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Perhaps the “Help Wanted” signs we see these days should instead read, “Dignity and Opportunity Available. Inquire Within.” In addition to other blessings, this Thanksgiving let us be thankful for the gift of work. Work allows us to share in the image of God our Creator. Work helps give our lives dignity, purpose, and opportunity.
The Law Offices of Mark S. Knutson, S.C.