Ed. Note: The email version of this edition of the Gadfly Weekly failed to identify sections of this week's editorials by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Peter Meyer as quotations from other authors. We have great respect for the work of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Mark Bauerlein, and would never want to imply that it was our own. We apologize for the mistake.

Pundits and politicians have cited the loss of manufacturing jobs as a sign of American economic decline for decades now, but a recent Washington Post article suggests that the problem is an under-skilled workforce, not a lack of opportunity. With that in mind, Checker and Peter square off this week to debate whether a renewed and revised focus on vocational education is the key to the U.S.'s economic future.

21st-century VocEd  could be key to future economic prosperity

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.

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.”
America in 2012 needs to prepare thousands more people for jobs that do exist.

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.

Education is no zero-sum game

By Peter Meyer

“Wouldn’t you want your plumber to be able to quote Shakespeare?” I posed the question to our veteran math teacher, thirty years in the trenches, and he said, succinctly and without hesitation, “No.”

At first, I was taken aback, but, as we chatted, I realized that he saw it as a zero-sum question. He had nothing against Shakespeare; he simply wanted his plumber to be a good plumber and considered the Bard a distraction.

I understand. We want our auto mechanics to know the difference between a brake line and a muffler, our carpenters to appreciate the importance of a plumb line and the use of a hammer—oops, nail gun.

But it is not a zero-sum game. And knowing the foibles of Macbeth does not mean you must be useless with a soldering gun.

And knowing the foibles of Macbeth does not mean you must be useless with a soldering gun.

And therein lies the conundrum. Had I posed the question this way—Would you like your plumber to be as quick in thought and as creative in action as Shakespeare?—he may have had second thoughts about his “No.” Would he want his plumber to be able to identify the lead pipes in his 1850 house? To know that his cranky fifty-year-old copper pipes can be replaced with plastic? To know that the state legislature was considering a bill to ban PVC? 

This is the skills dilemma.

The Washington Post suggests that our manufacturing resurgence is being hampered by the lack of “skilled workers.” What skills?

I attended an economic development seminar recently and listened to the CEO of our local hospital, one the largest employers in the region, talk about the lack of skilled workers. She didn’t mean doctors and nurses, though. She meant janitors and bed-pan assistants. “Our biggest problem is finding people who can read and write and show up on time,” she said.

I think it's time to bring back reading and writing, history, science, art, and music. That way kids at least know how to recognize a job opportunity when it presents itself. Mark Bauerlein's essay, the Mimetic Classroom, is apt here.

Think of it on the sports analogy. What sport is mastered simply by playing the sport? None of them. To improve in football or baseball or tennis or soccer, you lift weights and stretch daily, even though weightlifting and stretching are not practiced on the playing field. The principle is simple: at least part of training involves exercises not repeated in the game. One doesn’t hear football players in the weight room complaining, “Man, why do we have to do any more curls—this isn’t football!

A friend of mine, a Princeton history grad who went on to become a homebuilder and now teaches carpentry at a VocEd school, says he constantly lectures his would-be hammerers about the importance of basic math and communications skills. And he notes that VocEd, which has been “a dumping ground for dumb kids,” is changing. At his school, they have introduced three new standards for admission. First, a student must write a short essay about why he or she wants to be in a particular class. “You’d be amazed how many kids that eliminates,” says my friend. The school is also looking at a student’s reading scores and discipline record. “These won’t disqualify you, but the flags go up,” he explains. “And we deal with them. But these three things have been a huge step forward.”

We need more flags and we need to reconsider our definitions of skills. We can no longer afford to see VocEd as a refuge for the academically unprepared, because today’s economy—including its industrial sector—is far too dynamic and demanding. The point of a liberal arts education—and I include math and science in that education—is to teach some eternal verities so that, when the surface world changes, as it tends to do, we have citizens that possess the most important skill of all: the ability to adapt. As old Willie would say, “Now all the youth of England are on fire, and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies: Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought reigns solely in the breast of every man….” Including the lathe operator?

Chester E. Finn, Jr., scholar, educator and public servant, has devoted his career to improving education in the United States. At Fordham, he is now Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus. He’s also a Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

Finn served as Fordham’s President from 1997 to 2014, after many earlier roles in education, academe and government. From 1999 until 2002, he was John M.…

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Peter Meyer is an adjunct fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Meyer is also a former News Editor of Life magazine and the author of numerous nonfiction books, including the critically acclaimed The Yale Murder (Empire Books, 1982; Berkley Books, 1983) and Death of Innocence (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1985; Berkley Books, 1986). Over the course of his three-decade journalism career Meyer…

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