It is back, as this article from City Journal reports, and that is good news for reformed criminals.
At a dinner for Silicon Valley executives in early 2011, President Barack Obama asked Apple CEO Steve Jobs what it would take to bring iPhone manufacturing back to America. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” the typically blunt Apple cofounder told the president. Examining Jobs’s claim, the New York Times looked at Apple’s vast Chinese operations and found that workers there not only worked for less than Americans did; more of them were skilled. To oversee production and guide some 200,000 assembly-line workers, Apple, for instance, needed 8,700 industrial engineers—positions that required more than a high school diploma but less than a full college degree. While abundant in China, these kinds of employees are harder to find in the United States. “The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need,” an unnamed Apple executive told the Times.
That’s a refrain that more and more American business executives are uttering these days. Even as politicians argue over how to create or keep “good jobs” in the U.S., a recent National Federation of Independent Businesses survey reported that the percentage of small businesses saying that they get no or few qualified applicants for available jobs has hit a 17-year high. Studies estimate that hundreds of thousands of positions in manufacturing firms went unfilled, even during the post-financial-crisis downturn and subsequent weak recovery, because of the lack of skilled workers. “Open manufacturing jobs are at an all-time high,” the former CEO of Siemens USA, the industrial giant, observed in December.
Much of the problem, say business leaders and employment experts, is an educational failure. Career and technical training in the U.S. hasn’t evolved to keep up with the transformation of the modern economy—with many schools even slashing funding for vocational education. Worse, parents, guidance counselors, and even politicians keep pushing students to enter four-year college programs that provide no clear paths to employment. Meantime, jobs in traditional blue-collar trades—from manufacturing to automobile repair—have grown more sophisticated and demanding. A huge gap between job seekers’ skills and employers’ needs has resulted.
The good news is that some visionary businesses, educators, and nonprofit funders are intensifying efforts to revamp and upgrade career education—twenty-first-century vocational education—in the United States. The obstacles to such efforts are many, including school officials’ reluctance to partner with industry and lingering prejudices against vocational schooling. But for the rising number of students participating in programs that tailor education to career goals—programs that emphasize work-related experience and teach to the high standards necessary for modern jobs—the payoff has been impressive. Now the challenge is to build on those successes to ignite a broader cultural change that makes high-quality career training central to American education.
Congress may have had good intentions in 1917 when it passed the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act to promote vocational training in agriculture, industry, and trades. But the law, which required any student receiving trade-skill instruction with federal funds to spend at least half of his time in vocational training, tended to cut off vocational training from public school education. Career education eventually developed into something that teachers and guidance counselors encouraged students of low academic achievement to pursue. Though the robust post–World War II American economy provided many of these students with a solid middle-income living, vocational school became stigmatized. That stigmatization only intensified as American industrial jobs, battered by global competition and automation, started to disappear during the early 1980s, making four-year college seem for many the surest route to better jobs and higher earnings. Policymakers reinforced the message with subsidized student loans and other initiatives that sought to make college readily available to all.
Unfortunately, many students wound up enrolling in four-year colleges who weren’t suited for it, and the results haven’t been pretty. These days, only 55 percent of college students graduate within six years, leaving many with no degree and dismal job prospects. Meanwhile, student-loan debt has swelled to a monstrous $1.3 trillion.
Many of the students would have been better off receiving some kind of vocational training. Both as candidate and now as president, Donald Trump has tapped into widespread blue-collar discontent with his call to overhaul free-trade agreements to keep jobs from heading overseas. The reality, though, is that plenty of good-paying jobs are already available for properly trained workers. These positions typically fall into a category known as middle-skilled, meaning that they require some postsecondary education—for instance, a certified apprenticeship or a two-year associate’s degree from a community college—but not necessarily four years of university. These jobs are found in health care, information technology, manufacturing, and construction, among other fields. According to a 2013 Brookings Institution study, more than half of all jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) do not demand four-year degrees—and they pay an average annual salary above $50,000. Further, while high-paying STEM jobs requiring advanced degrees do cluster in a few major urban centers, plentiful middle-skilled jobs—ranging from cybersecurity specialist and web designer to robotics engineer and industrial-engineer technician—are dispersed throughout most American metropolitan areas, making them within geographical reach of most Americans.
Yet many of those jobs go unfilled. A 2011 survey by the consulting firm Deloitte and the Advanced Manufacturing Institute found that more than eight out of ten manufacturing firms reported a shortage of high-skilled workers—at a time when unemployment nationwide was above 8 percent. (By one estimate, some 1.5 million manufacturing jobs that America has added since the 2008 recession have been for workers with more than a high school education.) Even though the U.S. is graduating some 3 million high school students every year, nearly half of whom will enter the job market instead of continuing school, an estimated 1 million middle-skilled jobs in all fields remain unfilled.