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Brain Drain

Here we go again. Marc Tucker at Education Week writes – correctly and depressingly – about the fall of vocational education in the United States. I’ve seen it firsthand and can corroborate everything he says. Across the country, we have stigmatized skilled blue collar work, reduced support for vocational programs, and begun shepherding only “problem” kids into what little is left.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking line of Tucker’s article is this one: "We solved the problem of the low prestige of vocational programs the way we always deal with such problems, by renaming it, calling it career and technical education instead."

We didn’t fix what was broken; we just started calling it something different. Like in business – nothing’s a “problem,” it’s a “challenge.”

Okay, fine. Our current CHALLENGE is that American society has devalued and underfunded vocational training to such a degree that we may never, culturally, be able to reverse course. Somehow, somewhere, getting trained as a master electrician or aircraft mechanic stopped being a great opportunity for a secure, solid wage and became something lower-echelon; something that was less than. The result? Not only has America lost skills, it has lost the ability to support skilled labor as a successful segment of the economy, and now we’re reaping what we’ve sown.

I’ll just say… if I tried to build something out of wood, a bookshelf maybe, I’d chop off both my thumbs within the first two minutes. Last week when my furnace started making this hideous ronk-ronk-ronk sound, you know what I did? I looked at it. Sternly. That’ll teach it.

Then I went crying to the furnace people, who expressed sympathy before telling me they’re so backed up that they won’t get to me until mid-March. Not only do I have to live with the ronking, since I have absolutely no idea what it is or why it’s happening, for all I know I’m going to die in a furnace explosion before someone who actually knows what’s wrong can arrive to fix it. And we’ve societally stigmatized these people? These folks who are highly trained and make a solid middle-class wage?

On what’s left of America’s manufacturing floors, skilled mid-level employees are so thin on the ground that nearly 300,000 job openings can’t be filled. Steve Jobs was lying through his teeth when he told President Obama cost of labor had nothing to do with why iPhones are manufacturing in China rather than here. Cost of labor has a ton to do with it. But Jobs wasn’t necessarily being disingenuous when he added that Americans couldn’t manufacture iPhones, since there aren’t enough skilled factory employees here. People with a midline level of engineering knowledge, the ideal, innovative manufacturer – they possess great communication and critical thinking skills, take initiative and feel passionate about what they do – they don’t have, nor need, nor want, a degree in engineering.

This is something we have got to try and turn around. We need to reestablish the prominence of skilled vocational training and do everything we can to eliminate the narrow-minded viewpoint that an office drone is somehow better than a wind-turbine mechanic. The latter probably makes more money and is almost certainly more useful to humanity (seriously – as an office drone myself, yesterday I participated in a conference call, the sole purpose of which was to discuss today’s conference call).

All the good-intentioned efforts to bring digital, smart manufacturing to America’s companies may come to nothing if there aren’t people who know how to capitalize on that stuff. We need to train the workforce that’s available (read: unemployed) right now, and we need to invest heavily in a decade-plus educational initiative that brings prominence back to skilled trades. Though it’ll be expensive, the long-term return on that investment is incalculable. An America back at work, with office drones in their offices, contentedly typing away knowing that someone is fixing their furnace and they won’t get vaporized in a fiery orange boom. A manufacturing sector loaded with highly skilled, highly qualified personnel who can take advantage of all the tools we’re trying to get into their hands. It starts with learning, and we need to take a good, hard look at what’s being taught, to whom, and how.

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