Thursday, December 15, 2016

Training Workers for the New Economy

From Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston, at the January/February 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, "Make America Make Again":

Despite their many differences, the major candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential election managed to agree on at least one thing: manufacturing jobs must return to the United States. Last April, the Democratic contender Hillary Clinton told a crowd in Michigan, “We are builders, and we need to get back to building!” Her opponent in the Democratic primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders, said the manufacturing sector “must be rebuilt to expand the middle class.” And the Republican candidate Donald Trump bemoaned bad trade deals that he said had robbed the country of good jobs. “‘Made in America,’ remember?” he asked a rally in New Hampshire in September. “You’re seeing it less and less; we’re gonna bring it back.”

It’s true that many manufacturing jobs have left the United States, with the total number falling by about a third since 1980. But the news isn’t all bad. After decades of offshoring, U.S. manufacturing is undergoing something of a renaissance. Rising wages in developing countries, especially China, and increasing U.S. productivity have begun to make the United States much more attractive to manufacturers, who have added nearly half a million jobs since 2010.

But these jobs are not the same as the millions that have disappeared from the United States over the past four decades. Workers in contemporary manufacturing jobs are more likely to spend hours in front of a computer screen than in front of a hot furnace. To do so, they need to know simple programming, electrical engineering, and robotics. These are well-paying, middle-skill jobs that require technical qualifications—but not necessarily a four-year college degree. Between 2012 and 2022, these will account for half of all the new jobs created in the United States.

Yet the U.S. work force is woefully unprepared to take advantage of this opportunity. In New York State, for example, almost 25 percent of these jobs will likely go unfilled. According to a 2015 survey by the consulting firm Deloitte, 82 percent of manufacturing executives expect that they will be unable to hire enough people. The situation is all the more troubling when so many young people in the United States desperately need work.

There is a better way. In Germany, a “dual system” of vocational training that mixes classroom learning with work experience has helped drive the youth unemployment rate down to historic lows. The United States used to take a similar approach, but its commitment waned after decades of federal neglect and cultural antipathy to manual labor. It’s long past time to resurrect it.


In the years following World War II, the United States embraced vocational education. High schools prepared students for highly sought-after blue-collar work by training them to become aircraft mechanics or automotive repair technicians. The United States had hundreds of vocational schools where students studied welding, construction, and electrical engineering alongside a standard high school curriculum. These schools helped create a thriving blue-collar middle class.

But by the 1960s, white-collar positions had started to outstrip blue-collar jobs in number and prestige as the service sector came to dominate the economy. In 1963, Congress passed the Vocational Education Act, which provided federal funds to train students who were at an academic or socioeconomic disadvantage. The legislation was well intentioned but had the unintended consequence of encouraging the public to associate vocational education with troubled youth. A decade later, in 1972, the sociologist Richard Sennett found that many young people were embarrassed by their parents’ working-class origins and that older people felt at an increasing distance from their children as those children entered more prestigious jobs than their own. The stigma has stuck: parents in even very poor neighborhoods today believe that attending college is essential for a well-paying career and that middle-skill jobs are an inferior choice for their children. As a result, over the past four decades, the quality of technical education declined as investment in equipment and teacher training fell off, and private-sector interest has waned.

The move away from vocational education accelerated in the 1980s, when a 14-month-long recession triggered a crisis of confidence in U.S. education more generally...
Keep reading.