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To Save U.S. Industry, We Must Let Go Of An Outdated Education Model

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The U.S. education system must jettison its one-size-fits-all approach to secondary school and offer more trade skills-based pathways for students.

In discussing the problem of the talent gap with us, Brady Corporation CEO Michael Nauman emphasized, “Manufacturing, as a subset of the economy, is totally misunderstood.” He stressed that many millennial-age workers, as well as those from Gen Z, have never been in a factory, and they have little if any understanding about the nature of manufacturing work. What’s more, as he highlighted, the teaching of trades in high schools has fallen off. He recalled that when he was in school at Brighton High in Rochester, New York, which is one of the top-ranked public high schools in the nation, “I took metal shop and wood shop.” Many schools have discontinued those classes, and as for those that are available, he underscored, “In today’s high schools, you must be literally seen as a derelict to get into any type of trades program.”

Nauman, therefore, sees it as the responsibility of industrial leaders to impress upon youth that manufacturing companies offer them good career paths. But the U.S. education system must also move beyond its one-size-fits-all approach to secondary school, he said, and offer more trade skills-based pathways for students, increasing enrollment in programs to train students in technical skills that are in demand by employers like Brady.

As for college, while we, of course, embrace the value of humanities, history, social sciences and the arts, the U.S. needs more graduates in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math. Better options for post-secondary education are also needed. Too much emphasis is placed on getting a four-year university or college degree, which isn’t for all high school graduates and has left many college graduates burdened by excessive debt.

Whether someone has a degree or not, there’s a place for them in the Titanium Economy. If anything, skills rule the day and not college degrees. “White-collar and blue-collar workers achieve success together,” as Brett Cope, the CEO of Powell Industries, put it. At Powell Industries, a manufacturer of integrated solutions and electrical equipment for the distribution of electrical power in commercial and industrial markets, Houston’s diverse population offers a rich pool of recruits. After making a significant investment in recruiting talent, “we make sure our skilled laborers in the factory have every chance to succeed on a project,” Cope said. “Whether they went to trade school or otherwise, the median salary across the company is $53,000.”

Many of the leaders of industrial-tech companies shared this ethos, such as Meghan Juday of Ideal Industries. “We need a new dialogue around what it takes for a high school person to consider manufacturing, or to consider the trades, as a meaningful career,” she said. “We need to bring back trade schools and stop talking as if the only meaningful way you can get a career and make money is to go to college. You should go to college because it supports your career goals. I’m not saying don’t do that. But that shouldn’t seem like the only journey for your average high schooler.”

Many American parents agree. In fact, an April 2021 Gallup survey found that 45 percent of parents of current students wish that better alternatives to bachelor’s or two-year degrees were available to their children. More than half the survey’s respondents were interested in the prospects of apprenticeship programs, but they also responded that they were far less likely to say they know “a lot” about apprenticeships (9 percent) or technical training (22 percent), as opposed to those who said they knew “a lot” about two-year colleges (47 percent).

Making matters more urgent, the United States is being left far behind in schooling for industrial work by other competitor nations. Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, and Denmark all offer free or low-cost post-secondary education options tailored to work in the manufacturing sector. Germany has a particularly impressive system of Meisterschule, meaning Master Schools, that offer training in the trades and have partnered with industry to develop their curricula, with industry veterans serving as school principals. The country’s “dual training” model provides a combination of academic classes in vocational schools, for two or three days a week, with on-the- job training in companies, preparing students for over 300 nationally recognized occupations. Fully half of those who finish school undergo vocational training provided by companies, which consider dual training to be the best way to ac- quire skilled staff. Half a million Germans enter the workforce through apprenticeship programs. Competition for them is fierce, in contrast with US perception, and being chosen for an apprenticeship carries the same prestige as higher university degree programs in Germany.

In Asia, Singapore boasts one of the world’s highest- achieving educational systems. Multiple secondary school pathways place students in environments tailored to their abilities and direct them to post-academic employment opportunities. The field of polytechnics is one of the paths that high school students can take to develop employable skills. Due to these skills, a mere 4 percent of 15-to-29-year-old Singaporeans are not in some type of employment, education or training program, compared to 13 percent in the United States.

South Korea has built on the success of the German model to increase its emphasis on apprentice-based education and training. In 2010, Korea established its first Meister schools, partnering vocational schools with companies to tailor curriculums and courses according to the demands of the workforce and hiring school principals with real world business experience. The Meister curriculum areas of emphasis include biotechnology, semiconductors, automobile manufacturing, robotics, telecommunications, energy, shipbuilding, and marine industries. One of twenty-one Meister high schools in Korea, Gumi Electronic Technical High School demonstrates the strong bond with industry. With an executive member of LG Electronics as the school principal, Gumi has signed an agreement with LG Innotek that the company will employ one hundred graduates, and similar arrangements are in the works with LG Electronics and LG Display.

The United States must create more opportunities for affordable, or even free, post-secondary education, in addition to vocational training and undergraduate and master’s education in STEM. We also favor career and technical education (CTE) in high schools that prepares students for jobs in specific industries. With a skills-focused training program that students can complete in one to two years, a high school graduate could step into a well-paying job immediately upon graduation. An added benefit of CTE programs, though, is that a substantial portion of students who graduate from them go on to attend two-year community colleges to further hone their skills.

Many business leaders and elected officials have now placed creating a “worker pipeline” for the industrial sector at the top of their agendas, and we have a great opportunity to accelerate renewed interest in CTE. But to attract the necessary students, we have to eliminate the stigma attached to this schooling, which can come from parents, teachers, and school counselors. Students need nonjudgmental information about the benefits of CTE. School systems should also hold district-wide awareness sessions with parents to show them how their children can better compete in the emerging Titanium Economy in decades to come. In addition to this counseling and outreach to parents, the United States must enhance the apprenticeship and training programs available.

For example, we should build on the work of the highly effective Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium. It partners employers with more than 300 colleges to align college offerings with workplace needs. The American Diesel Training Centers has pioneered another great approach. The training offered by the Institute requires only 20 percent of the time and cost of the typical technical school thanks to its pay-for-success model in which the cost of training programs is partly based on whether a student gets hired after completion.

Another promising effort is Generation USA, an independent nonprofit founded by McKinsey that offers free job training and placement services in such hot areas as cybersecurity and web development. In October 2020, Verizon committed over $44 million to the organization for a multiyear strategic partnership intended to significantly increase enrollment in the programs and enhance job placement.

Important as such initiatives are, we believe the country must make a concerted national effort to increase apprenticeship opportunities. We strongly support a nationwide “Apprenticeship Institute” network, which would elevate the importance of apprenticeships in the culture to the level of university degree programs, as in Germany. We hope that support for this approach would come from both sides of the political aisle. There is an opportunity for government and industry to come together to combat the perception that apprenticeship programs are inferior to university degrees, and as part of this, industries and government could fund a national campaign to rebrand apprenticeships to bring in new recruits.


Excerpted from THE TITANIUM ECONOMY: How Industrial Technology Can Create a Better, Faster, Stronger America by Asutosh Padhi, Gaurav Batra, and Nick Santhanam. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


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