21st-Century VocEd Could Be Key to Future Economic Prosperity

I’m a huge fan of high-quality liberal-arts education for everybody and really do think it would go far to prepare better citizens, neighbors, and consumer/transmitters of America’s cultural heritage and democratic underpinnings. I’m also an acolyte of E.D. Hirsch and his core point that everyone—especially poor kids—needs to be culturally literate as well as equipped with the 3 R’s (though he emphasizes that his focus is K-8, not high school).

That said, I’m also becoming convinced that the future of our economy and the acquisition of good jobs will hinge as much on well-developed technical prowess as on Aristotle, Shakespeare, Darwin, Rembrandt, and Mozart.

Recent weeks have brought multiple reports of U.S. jobs going unfilled, or being outsourced to distant lands, because too few American workers have the requisite skills to perform them well.

On January 21, for example, the New York Times explained why Apple has its iPhones, iPads, and such manufactured in China. Among the multiple reasons, not all of them praiseworthy, this one stuck with me:

Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States. In China, it took 15 days.

Companies like Apple “say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force,” said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. “They’re good jobs, but the country doesn’t have enough to feed the demand,” Mr. Schmidt said.

Further evidence turned up in The Washington Post a few days ago, with employers in several states lamenting the dearth of technically qualified workers for decently-paid jobs now going unfilled:

[A]s the 2012 presidential candidates roam the state offering ways to “bring the jobs back,” many manufacturers say that, in fact, the jobs are already here. What’s missing are the skilled workers needed to fill them.

A metal-parts factory here has been searching since the fall for a machinist, an assembly team leader, and a die-setter. Another plant is offering referral bonuses for a welder. And a company that makes molds for automakers has been trying for seven months to fill four spots on the second shift.

“Our guys have been working 60 to 70 hours a week, and they’re dead. They’re gone,” said Corey Carolla, vice president of operations at Mach Mold, a forty-man shop in Benton Harbor, Mich. “We need more people. The trouble is finding them.”

As such reports make plain, somewhere along the education continuum, America in 2012 needs to prepare thousands more people for jobs that do exist. The skills they call for, by and large, are technical and do not seem to require much of a “liberal arts” background, even if citizenship does. Many do not entail sitting at a desk or wearing a white lab coat. Rather, they involve today’s version of what used to be called “blue collar” and “foreman” work and the educational preparation for succeeding in them does not look much like what the “everyone should complete college” crowd seems to have in mind.

Recall the provocative Pathways to Prosperity report from the Harvard ed school a year back, observing that just 30 percent of the jobs in 2018 will require a bachelor’s degree and arguing for a “multiple pathways” approach to K-12 reform. This didn’t get the attention it deserved—and still deserves. For it demands not only rethinking the “college for all” mantra but also launching a bold makeover of America’s “vocational” high schools (and kindred postsecondary institutions), bringing them into the 21st century rather than either jettisoning them or retaining them unchanged.

My home town of Dayton is setting a good example with the recently opened David H. Ponitz Career Technology Center. Plenty more schools have incorporated the word “technical” or “technology” into their names. But as you scan their curricula, you find many that have clung to the old programs (carpentry, metal working, auto body) that still sound worthy but may well lead to underprepared and ultimately unemployable people—and that’s even assuming that their students bring strong basic skills (and cultural literacy) with them into ninth grade.

In sum: Somewhere between the dead-end of old-style vocational high schools and the fashionable but ill-advised “college for everyone” campaign is a course of action that will actually equip young Americans for both successful citizenship and the real economy that they will inhabit.

-Chester E. Finn Jr.

This post also appeared in Fordham’s Education Gadfly Weekly

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