Opinion: Did ‘South Park’ Nail the Reality of the Skilled-Worker Shortage?

The opinions stated are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Equipment World or its parent company, Fusable.

While I don’t keep up with “South Park” regularly, I’ve caught my fair share of episodes over the years and have come to appreciate the show’s satirical and outlandish takes on current events.

A clip from the October 2023 special “South Park: Joining the Pandaverse” recently made its way into my Instagram feed and provided some entertaining and maybe not-too-farfetched social commentary on the future of the skilled trades.

In the subplot of the special, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and their writers fire shots at the white-collar workforce and younger generations for no longer possessing any practical skills. 

Randy Marsh, a geologist turned cannabis farmer, calls his kids Shelley and Stan into the kitchen to teach them how to do something themselves, like fix the broken oven door. “It has come to my attention that young people today don’t know how to do s***!” he barks at them. “You’ve got your phones, and your A.I., and you kids haven’t learned to be able to actually do anything.”

In a hilarious turn of events, and in true Randy fashion, he follows with, “What you do is you take out your phone and you call the handyman.”

Despite the fact that the handyman is portrayed as a disheveled, slow-talking buffoon, the special exposes the reality of the skilled-worker shortage in America. Who will do the work?

Randy thinks he can pay the worker extra to complete the job faster, only to find out that the handyman is so in demand he can name his price, deny any job – and is filthy rich.

“I don’t need your trivial little perks anymore, Marsh. I’ve got work coming out my ears,” the handyman remarks. “I’ve got so much money, I don’t care.”

(To watch the segment, check out the video below. And fair warning: as with any “South Park” episode, the clip contains strong language and content that may be inappropriate for some viewers.)

The episode goes on to show Randy, alongside a large group of other hapless white-collar professionals, trying to barter services – everything from legal to accounting to data analysis – with the handymen passing through the Home Depot parking lot.

The group is deflated that years of college left them with no tangible skills, right as AI is poised to take their jobs. At one point, Randy exclaims, “A.I. could do everything better than we can except for stuff that requires arms!”

While Randy tries to fix this atrocity, two handymen, acting as parodies of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, reach near-celebrity status and are seen fighting over insane purchases and feats to prove who is wealthier.  

A Look into the Future?

While the antics were not the focal point of the special, the clips cleverly depict the need as a society to change our attitudes about the education system and blue-collar careers.

From the contractors I’ve talked to this year, there seems to be no shortage of work on the horizon, with the lack of qualified workers being a contributing factor to that backlog. Older generations are retiring at a rate faster than we can replace.

The latest construction employment data from AGC shows that the industry still has nearly 400,000 unfilled positions nationwide and would likely add even more jobs if firms could find more qualified workers to hire. On top of that, construction wages continue to climb, with U.S. employers planning total salary increases of 3.9% for 2024, down slightly from the 4.1% increase observed in 2023.

So, while the construction industry’s labor shortage is complex – and driven by a variety of societal, economic and regulatory factors – there is a lot of opportunity to be had and money to be made.

Now, we just need to work on our appeal.

The easy thing to do is sit around to wait for more government investment in construction education and training programs or immigration reform.

But the right thing to do is to take matters into your own hands – from direct outreach to schools to internship and apprentice programs to offering more flexible hours and scheduling.

There are still young people interested in doing work that “requires arms” – and plenty of burnt-out desk jockeys who may be looking for something more fulfilling.

We just might have to spend more time teaching them “how to do s***” than we did in the past.