As summer draws to a close, millions of parents will drop their children off at schools that bear little resemblance to the ones the parents attended in their youths. From technology in the classroom to teaching methods and even to education standards themselves, so much has changed, mostly for the better.
Even with these changes, the U.S. education system is playing catch-up with the modern labor market. The academic instruction of 30, 40, or 50 years ago simply doesn’t meet today’s economic demands and the shifting nature of the jobs available today.
From 1978 to 2007, manufacturing employment in the United States fell by 29 percent, including a 59 percent drop in the metals industry, a 67 percent drop in the textile industry, and a 78 percent drop in the garment industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Vocational Training Gets the Stinkeye
The loss of employment was accompanied by a major reduction in vocational and industrial arts education. Between 1999 and 2009, the average number of high-school credits earned in career and technical education fell by 15 percent, notes the U.S. Department of Education. But the trend is much older than that. As far back as 1986, The Los Angeles Times quoted a California Board of Education estimate that the state already had lost a third of its secondary school shop courses in the prior eight years.
For those jobs that remained onshore, real wages stagnated. While BLS data show the hourly productivity of production and nonsupervisory workers was up 80.4 percent from 1973 to 2011, average hourly compensation was up only 39.2 percent. For the median male, hourly compensation was up just 0.1 percent.
As blue-collar jobs were increasingly no longer viewed as a path to a middle-class lifestyle, vocational training was also increasingly stigmatized as undesirable for students who wished to be “successful” Americans. It was to be reserved for those who couldn’t scrounge up the wherewithal to take the “more intellectually challenging” path to college, which more and more Americans did. Enrollment in degree-granting post-secondary institutions jumped 15 percent from 1992 to 2002 then spiked 24 percent from 2002 to 2012.
We focused more on producing thinkers than makers. Intellectual growth became an end unto itself, even if our knowledge-based service economy actually required a different sort of training. Those who couldn’t find their way in this new world have struggled, evidenced by men’s retreat from the labor force and the abundance of literature on those the service economy left behind.
Technical Jobs Reborn
The economy is shifting again. Foreign direct investment in the United States surged from $64 billion in 2003 to $236 billion in 2013, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Much of this has been driven by a manufacturing resurgence. Data from the Reshoring Initiative suggests that, from 2003-2014, America has experienced a 70 percent reduction in offshoring.
Yet many lack either the interest or, more importantly, the skills to take these jobs. Over the past few weeks, we’ve met with public officials, educators, and industry leaders to examine workforce issues in Georgia and Alabama. Nowhere were the new realities facing our workforce more apparent than the Graphic Packaging International facility in Perry, Georgia.
The facility was enormous. The whirring of multistory printers, an army of gluing machines, and an extensive warehousing system were only a few of the stages producing the Coke, Pepsi, and craft-beer cartons you probably have in your refrigerator.
What struck us was the relatively low number of people facilitating such a massive operation. For each gigantic printer, two workers analyzed manufacturing data and adjusted the machine as necessary. An automated conveyor system carried and sorted the cartons on the way to a robotic palletizer. A few workers driving skid steers carried the pallets to their correct position in the warehouse for shipping.
Companies like Graphic Packaging have real labor needs and plenty of applicants, but, like so many other companies across the region, they struggle to attract and retain the level of labor quality they need. They need workers with the skills to run a multimillion-dollar printer operating system 24 hours a day. Those include mechanical aptitude, as well as effective reading, writing, and math skills. There’s plenty of room for continual skills growth toward a fulfilling career, from maintenance to engineering to programming.
Don’t Sniff at a Great Job
In times of economic uncertainty, no parent wants to be an outlier in the education they provide for their children. We’ve heard the story of declining wages over and over. We’ve repeatedly heard the political talking points about the threat of offshoring. We want our children to have better lives than we did.
But if parents want their children to enjoy successful, fulfilling lives, it may be time to broaden our vision of what that entails. It’s telling that, in today’s America, more parents would be likely to accept their five-year-old son’s declaration that he identifies as a girl than would accept their 18-year-old’s proclamation that he wants to be an underwater welder, even though the pay for that particular vocation ranges from $54,000 to well over $100,000.
To upend this narrative that has so many of us looking down our noses at some of the best emerging job opportunities, we need to shift our attitude about the fundamental purpose of education and redefine what success looks like. We need a cultural change of heart, which starts with parents. Not every boy needs to grow up to be a welder, but neither should every boy grow up to be a lawyer.
The education community also needs to recognize that what they are providing often doesn’t set children up for success. In higher education, we need a better balance between “broadening the mind” and paying the bills. And we need to think hard about ways to create economic opportunity and success for people who aren’t interested in what has been the traditional education path of the last several decades.
Reaffirm the Dignity of Hard Work
We need to affirm the dignity in all work. We need a return to the days Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, and others have so lovingly described, a time when American conceptions of “class” weren’t defined by what types of work one did. What other cultural ills could we solve if all walks of life could come together once again at the Rotary Club, rather than being segregated by employment status into the pool hall or the country club? What if being a “maker” was once again respected?
While tying personal success to higher education may work for some Americans, we aren’t paying enough attention to our actual economic needs and the types of work that many might find engaging, particularly the men who have left our labor force. We need skilled workers for jobs critical to our economy.
Our economy is changing, and our perspectives on work and education also need to change to meet new demands. If they don’t, we might be losing jobs for our children before they even make it to school.
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