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Made in America Redux: Return of the Trade Degree

Made in America Redux: Return of the Trade Degree


“Made in America”: the phrase that was once synonymous with manufacturing excellence, the product of a place and a people steeped in deep histories of craftsmanship, creativity, and vocational trade know-how.

But it’s been said that times change, and change they did. America moved from a skilled trades-based manufacturing economy to a high technology and service sector economy. American trades just about died as an occupation, even where manufacturing output continues to increase. That is, no more wood and metal shops, kiddos. It was time for STEM training and the rise of coders and HR professionals.

Where teaching trade was once the norm, trade schools are all but missing from the modern educational landscape. But the pendulum is swinging, headed toward an American trade resurgence and, with that, vocational education. A combination of the rise of craft everything, the push by younger generations to return to skilled trades, the skyrocketing costs of university education coupled with a precarious job market, and the economic need for American manufacturing have created a resurgence of American trade and trade education. Is it too little too late? How does Boulder County stack up? Are we preparing our young people for the diversity of jobs available?

US Trade Heyday

Let’s talk history. Or, put another way, how did we get here? “American manufacturing created the world’s biggest economy and it’s first truly prosperous mass consumption society,” in the 19th and 20th century, according to Steve Coulter, Research Officer at the LSE’s European Institute (EI). On December 4, 2014, Brett Arends, writing for MarketWatch, declared the end of US economic dominance. He wrote, with a certain amount of bewilderment:

“There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it: We’re no longer No. 1. Today, we’re No. 2. Yes, it’s official. The Chinese economy just overtook the United States economy to become the largest in the world. For the first time since Ulysses S. Grant was president, America is not the leading economic power on the planet.

It just happened — and almost nobody noticed.”

But people did notice. Adam Tooze wrote what David Frum in The Atlantic called, an “astonishing economic history of World War II,” The Wages of Destruction. “Before the 1914 war,” Frum writes, “the great economic potential of the U.S. was suppressed by its ineffective political system, dysfunctional financial system, and uniquely violent racial and labor conflicts.” The great first World War was the fuel that pushed US industrialization to its greatest heights. American factories became war factories, growing the still global-toddler nation into the economic and military powerhouse of the ’20s.

“Tooze’s story ends where our modern era starts: with the advent of a new European order — liberal, democratic, and under American protection. Yet nothing lasts forever,” Frum reminds us. “The foundation of this order was America’s rise to unique economic predominance a century ago,” an order threatened in the modern day by an America whose push for military, technological, and informational economic dominance nearly tossed out it’s manufacturing base with the proverbial bath water.

Decline of Trade (Employment) & Trade Education

Forging ever forward from WWI, the massive American economy embraced and accelerated the processes of globalization. Education at the time was robustly vocational, but not in the modern sense. Trade training was through apprenticeships and training on the job. Matthias Kreysing, writing for European Journal, notes, “Vocational education was first established in private high schools in the second half of the 19th century … However, vocational education played only a minor role in high schools until the beginning of the 1960s.”

While the liberal arts were in every school and vocational training was a post-secondary educational project, John Dewey (1859-1952) advocated for what became known as Laboratory Schools — schools with a high focus on occupations and harmonizing individual and social ends. Curriculums at Lab Schools included construction technology, textiles, and agriculture. The logic for why education wasn’t vocational and needed to be added to the curriculum in a more holistic way is simple: before 1938 children were effectively participants in the workforce already.

Many of us recall even up to the early 1990s that woodshop and metal shop were incredibly common, if not the norm. But globalization beckoned. And our education system heeded the call.

In keeping apace, much of the American education system has become arguably fractured, with a multiplicity of pedagogical perspectives overlapping diverse systems. Sir Michael Sadler, writing on education in 1900, said that, “We cannot wander at pleasure among the educational systems of the world, like a child strolling through a garden, and pick off a flower from one bush and some leaves from another, and then expect that if we stick what we have gathered into the soil at home, we shall have a living plant. A national system of education is a living thing, the outcome of forgotten struggles and ‘of battles long ago’. It has in it some of the secret workings of national life.”

Milton Ezrati, writing in the National Review (2017), says that “no matter how much politicians promise to protect us, technology and globalization will continue to transform the American workplace, driving the U.S. economy to abandon simpler, labor-intensive production processes, turn increasingly toward more mechanized, digitized, high-value efforts, and, accordingly, demand an ever-better-trained workforce.” His logic veers off into some arguably faulty premises about which workers get left behind and the role of training/retraining, but his thesis is valid. “Though these trends,” he argues, “should generally create prosperity, they will also bring significant social disruptions,” like increased income disparities, increased opportunities for the well educated and highly skilled (and vice versa), and a shrinking middle class.

The failure of writers like Ezrati lay in the political perspective employed. Using laissez-faire economic logic, he argues that technological advancement from the “first spinning machines and power looms” resulted in “a familiar anxiety over the fate of workers who either would not or could not learn the new techniques.” Shamelessly ignoring the role of primary, secondary, and postsecondary education, he makes the corporatist argument that, “[p]olicymakers would do better to accommodate the impact of globalization and technological innovation, refocus the economy accordingly, alter the nature of the workplace, and train (and retrain) the labor force”. Retraining may be seen as a form of postsecondary education, but is more rightly understood as a narrow path toward continued economic benefit for employers. The retraining offered is usually of limited scope, not the broad choice for life these workers deserve.

Check out this graph from Vox, via the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that shows how our manufacturing output has gone up while manufacturing employment has gone down, a result of increased mechanization and automation with assembly and other human intensive processes outsourced. This is the failure at the latter end of the educational continuum, retraining.

But let’s get back to technological lapse. In fact, since the spinning loom, it was the function of education to prepare workers for the economy and the function of government regulation to help keep them gainfully employed. This has not changed. I had woodshop classes in junior high school at Auburndale Intermediate School in California. I actually called Auburndale to ask when wood and metal shop were removed from the curriculum. I was told that it was too long ago to remember, which points to the recent failure of schools to provide for the vocational trades. That school, it should be noted, is near Ontario Airport and the manufacturing economies of the Inland Empire. This is not Colorado, obviously, but this same failure of educational vision plays out across the country: even where demand exists, education fails.

The Resurgence of Trade Education

We are, lest the history seems overwhelming, witnessing a resurgence of trade education vis-a-vis trade demands today. We are seeing a full a resurgence in trade education in our own communities. Where my junior high school didn’t offer vocational training, and my high schools sure didn’t, Colorado has several that do — and several here in Boulder County that do. Make sure to check out the piece on high school trade training programs by Jonah Svihus in this very issue.

Continuing trade education is a must, beyond high school and beyond pittance postsecondary educational projects. We need an expansion from the postsecondary education through professionalization, a resurgence in apprenticeships and journey positions, and corresponding union growth. And yes, all the heavyweights have weighed in. Headlines like, “After decades of pushing bachelor’s degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople,” from PBS, “Could Vocational Education Be the Answer to Failing High Schools?,” from The Atlantic, and, “Why We Desperately Need To Bring Back Vocational Training In Schools,” from Forbes, are getting at the same point: America has failed its manufacturing sector by failing it’s education sector. Fail the students and you fail the workers of tomorrow.

Thankfully, the resurgence is being demanded from the top down, in a bipartisan way. What’s that, you say, the Democrats and the Republicans agree on something? Absolutely. According to their .gov webpage:

“The Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus is a bipartisan group of Representatives committed to supporting and promoting CTE.

CTE programs exist in every congressional district and every state. The goals of the bipartisan caucus are to educate and promote quality CTE programs and well-paying, family-sustaining jobs.”

President Donald Trump, in his first State of the Union, called on Congress, without any specific proposals, to “invest in workforce development and job training. Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential,” Politico quotes. Reuters’ piece on the issue, “Trump’s Unlikely Allies on Trade – Democrats,” has Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown standing with Trump on the steel tariffs initiative and other areas of trade policy.

President Trump and the Democrats today aren’t the only ones who care about vocational training, though. President Obama was sounding the alarm, according to Reuters in 2012. He called for “substantial new spending on education with a $69.8 billion education budget heavily focused on boosting vocational training, both at the high-school and college level,” a plan that was met with Republican opposition.

Also driving the push for trade education is the hipster. Yes, I said it: the hipsters are doing some good. Young folks intent on reviving the craft legacy of ages past are breathing life into the world of locally produced, handmade goods. While Boomers and others complain that the millenials are killing industries, no one seems to be applauding the fact that they’re also reviving other industries.

“Craft isn’t a niche or fad. People want to be in the business of making things again. They care where products come from. And sometimes they just want watches to tell time,” said Bridget Russo, CMO of Shinola, a craft watchmaker, in Adweeks. Craving unique goods, demanding high quality items that are in low supply, and buying into the brand identity of local, low carbon footprint, high value production necessitates those with the skill to create these goods.

Tobias Roberts, in the Huffington Post, says that, “In today’s world, a resurgence of trade schools doesn’t only offer a viable educational alternative, but might also represent a truly radical alternative that remodels what education should be about in the first place.” Roberts cites three main areas of interest for folks thinking of pursuing the vocational trade degree.

First, that “People who learn a viable trade can often find a niche within vibrant local economies in order to become financially successful while avoiding the punishing debt burden so often associated with university education.”

Secondly, Roberts notes that, “trade schools can be an important part of strengthening local economies,” because a trade “education can allow people to learn the necessary skills and abilities that are necessary in every small community around the world.” He backs up this point by quoting the “agrarian writer Wes Jackson “about the need for an education for ‘homecoming’; a type of education that will allow young people to return to their places of origin instead of embracing the mobility that the global economy demands of young people.” So then, to our local education situation.

BOCO Trade Schools: Where are they?

Where can a kid go to get a vocational education in Boulder County? It’s an important question. You start in high school, as Jonah’s piece (see it in this issue), illustrates. But are we as advanced as we need to be? The answer is a profound No.

Where “Vocational education historically has been prevalent in European countries, such as Finland and Germany, [it] often comes with a stigma in the U.S. that suggests only low-performing and troublemaking students end up in such schools,” says Allie Bidwell in US News. I spoke with George Newman, Director of the Machining Program at Front Range Community College (FRCC) Boulder County campus in Longmont, and Marty Goldberg, Director of High School programs. We had a wide ranging conversation, but I specifically asked about the logic of Boulder Valley School District placing an alternative high school — “a school for troubled youth” — on a shared campus with Boulder Technical Education Center, the vocational training center for high schoolers. The response was not immediately reassuring: “It’s two different school,” Goldberg says, and “students don’t see that at all. Those that want to learn those skills are more than happy to leave their home high school for half a day.” That is, students from across the district can opt in to classes at BTEC; it’s a side benefit for Arapahoe Ridge to have that option so close.

Could we do better? Sure, but we’re doing incredibly well compared to many others. In fact, FRCC has 122 different vocational trade training programs from CAD, to auto technology, to forestry throughout the Front Range. A certificate, Jessica Peterson, Director of Public Relations, tells me, could cost as little as $5,408 (for full time in-state tuition, fees, and average book costs). A certificate is one to two semesters. The machining program, which is huge, is a one year program that costs about $6,000 for a career with a $30,000 entry salary, on average.

Newman told me that in his machining program students normally have a job waiting for them before they graduate. That is, the occupation is in such high demand that students are being recruited right out of college. This program started in 2014 — recent history with immediate success. There is also an “optics technology program that started in 2017, one of only four programs for the optics and photonics industry nationwide.” A need for manufacturing skilled workers, Newman tells me, “has led us to a decision to expand into a larger facility in 2019…and create two new programs. One is Automation and Industrial Maintenance and the other is Electronics Technology.”

Interestingly, Newman tells me that, “Colorado has the largest, per capita, aerospace industry of any state.” Machining is integral to the aerospace industry. Graduates in his program go on to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and to the hundreds of in state suppliers that make parts for the big companies. Additionally, medical equipment, energy companies, recreation industry, and others all require the skills of machinist; seems like a safe career bet.

The question, though, is still asked: in a highly competitive world of high technology, where the world’s billionaires are almost exclusively in computer science or finance, is vocational education a kiss of death? Where Germany and other European nations embrace the early testing/tracking model of education, with vocational technology a hugely valid and career safe path, stateside educators don’t always agree. Carol Burris is a principal in Ohio, who worries that “there’s a balance that needs to be maintained between expanding opportunities for students and inadvertently pushing them down one road or another, which Burris says simply creates “fodder for business.”

Newman suggests that our nation is headed toward the European model, which “seems to work very well for them.” There is an organization called Career Wise Colorado, Newman shares, “that is well on their way to introducing the Swiss model to the state. They’re starting their second cohort,” this year. It’s a path from high school to college, predicated on nurturing the educational side and connecting students to apprenticeships “while addressing the need for middle skilled jobs that don’t require college”.

And that’s really it. A couple of auto mechanic schools aside, unless one wants to travel outside of Boulder County, that’s all we have. Thus the profound No of whether we’re doing a good job. FRCC is doing a great job, and we look to the community college system to continue to full the void traditional education has created.

To the Future

Anthony Carnevale is the Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and he holds some hypocritical views that illuminate exactly where we are as a society in regard to vocational education. In an interview with NPR, he says that, “We need a middle path with a different kind of pedagogy focused on real-world knowledge. It has to be an on ramp to more education with labor market value…”. And then, when asked in the same interview why he wouldn’t want his own children to take this middle path, he says bluntly, “Because the truth is, the tried-and-true path in America is high school to Harvard. Until we invest enough to build an alternative pathway and respect real work in the U.S., I wouldn’t risk my child’s [education]”. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where we are at.

Is the trade resurgence sustainable? It is, if we work at it. The world can only splinter into so many competing islands of poverty and affluence, so many overlapping hubs of productivity, so many nodes of technological affluence. As globalization continues and the move toward free[r] trade inches along, the role of local production will increase. Why? Eventually — and this is a distant eventuality — the cost of doing business abroad will become only marginally better than at home, negligibly so. As young people age, the role of new consciousness’, moralities, and intolerance to oppressive capitalist cycles will render those old forms of production less beneficial, meaning increased production at home. We’re already seeing this in the move toward craft, local, handmade, local production. This will only continue. We would urge our local politicians and business community to plan ahead for this movement. Or be left behind.


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