Tacking yet another new calendar to the wall makes me feel, well, old, and that in turn makes me think about the next generation. Judging by chats with readers in recent weeks, I’m not the only one. It’s no secret that manufacturing has a graying work force. Even during tough times, metal fabricators struggle to find talent graduating from high schools, technical colleges, and engineering schools.
My previous blog opined about the problems behind private, for-profit schools, and one reader pointed out that without government loans, these for-profit institutions probably wouldn’t exist. His larger point, which I agree with, is that our overall education system basically is a mess.
It seems we’re all worried about the state of education, and for good reason, considering the structural unemployment problem. Many low- and even semiskilled jobs have disappeared.
Over the holiday I finally got around to reading Freakonomics, a book by former New York Times Magazine writer Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, a unique economist from the University of Chicago known for tackling unusual, overlooked subjects. For instance, in one chapter he asks how much a good education really matters. Students who graduate from a high-performing school usually become more successful. But does this happen because of the school, or is it something else?
Levitt dug into the data and uncovered some surprises. According to the book, since 1980 the Chicago Public Schools has allowed any high school freshman to apply to any school in the district. Obviously, more students applied to high-performing high schools, which is why CPS resorted to a lottery. Some underprivileged children were chosen to attend those high-performing high schools; others attended their local, lower-performing schools.
As Levitt continued to dig into the data, he found something interesting. Academic success and school choice don’t correlate like we think they do. All who entered the lottery, whether they got into the good school or not, had similar academic success. What did seem to matter was the act of entering the lottery in the first place. If students or their parents cared enough about education to enter the lottery, then they all tended to perform well, regardless of the school they attended. On the other hand, students who didn’t enter the lottery at all performed worse. The quality of education seems to matter to a point. But according to Levitt, caring and motivation may matter more.
Many in manufacturing are asking how the industry can find talent, and we’re all pointing fingers at a woefully inadequate education system. It’s certainly a grave concern, and improvement is vital. But to tackle the skilled labor crisis, maybe we should be looking to other areas as well: most significant, manufacturing’s image. As Levitt’s research shows, bright people are out there. They may not know as much as they should when they graduate high school, community college, or even a four-year degree program, but they’re motivated and eager to learn.
2011 may be a turning point in many ways. The U.S. can’t succeed through consumption and services alone. The economy--which is off to a good start this year--needs manufacturing. Trumpeting a new manufacturing age--no longer dark, dirty, and dangerous but instead bright, technical, and innovative--may do a lot to pique the interest of those motivated youth.