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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Manufacturing and the trades in schools

A look at the return of manufacturing and the trades in schools and in conversations.

Recently, I published a post on here entitled, "I was a slacker in high school," in which I discussed the regrets I still have all these years later for not taking high school more seriously. That post generated quite a bit of buzz, fielding over 500 hits in less than a day and a couple of reader comments below the post. I'm really grateful for all the interest and positive feedback surrounding that post, and I truly hope it can serve as a teachable moment.

Today, I want to talk about another important factor that affected my time in high school in, looking back on it, a negative way, as well, and how younger generations of high school students and graduates are now benefiting from a renaissance in programming, resources, and real conversations. I'm talking about the resurgence in manufacturing and the trades in schools.

I graduated high school in 2001. While I was in high school in the late 1990s, manufacturing in the United States was undergoing a serious exodus. Perhaps the hardest hit areas were in the Midwest, where manufacturing was a way of life, providing many families with a stable, comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. Many of the men in my family, along with many of our family friends, were skilled machinists. And many of them lost their jobs in the late 90s, including my father, an uncle, and even my mother, who did assembly work. Many plants during this time closed up shop and moved down to Mexico, where labor and other resources were much cheaper.

At the time, the message to those of us in high school was, "Avoid manufacturing. It's dead in this country. There's no future in it. Go to college." The four-year university was all the talk. That was the path we were all encouraged - even outright steered toward - to pursue. Many students from my generation, including myself, were the first ones in our families to go to university. Pursuing a university education, we were told, would lead to a great, comfortable living, and one that's clean - away from the oily, dirty, dim-lit environment often associated with machining and factory work back then, however real or merely perceived.

Simultaneously, the other trades, along with technical colleges and vocational schools, were largely downplayed as post-high school options, as well. These jobs and paths just weren't really talked about much, it seemed, and when they were, they were often cast in the same light as the then-disappearing jobs in the manufacturing realm - grimy, labor-intensive, whatever the opposite of the pristine, well-lit, promising, and even futuristic jobs being churned out by the white-collar world. The university, we were told by our parents, teachers, guidance counselors, the media, and broader society, was the way of the future. Many schools were scaling back or outright eliminating shop and tech ed programs, or they were on their way to doing so in subsequent years.

There's just one problem with this widely-held blind faith in the university system - unless we want to go back to kerosene lamps, outhouses, primitive buildings and living spaces, making our own tools and utensils, and horse and carriage for transportation, we will always need electricians, plumbers, carpenters, painters, drywallers, welders, mechanics, machinists, assembly workers, automotive workers, you name it.

Flash forward to today. In more recent years, especially the present day, the tide has shifted back to fully embracing trades education. We as a society are back again to encouraging technical colleges and vocational schools as viable post-high school options. We're reviving old and establishing new partnerships to funnel students and graduates into skilled labor employment and apprenticeships. And we're simply having real conversations of substance. And, in a somewhat ironic twist, it's these types of jobs and career tracks that are the ones offering the comfortable, promising living these days. Furthermore, manufacturing facilities have come a long ways in cleanliness and lighting levels to match!

See, we've managed to ignore, downplay, or steer away from these lines of work for so long, while simultaneously over-flooding the market with bachelor's degree holders, that there are huge labor shortages - and hence big-time demand for young adults showing an interest and aptitude for them.

Now, I don't regret my university education and subsequent graduate-level studies. Through this education, I've discovered and enjoyed a lot of work meaningful and satisfying to me over the years, including various stints in entrepreneurship. I've also established and have benefited from quite a few professional and networking relationships, many of which have become close, personal friendships. But while I have no regrets on my university education, I also wish that these opportunities were discussed and presented to us in a more positive - literally, a more honest - light back then. Big opportunities that you now have if you're interested.

Want the best of both worlds? I typically advise students these days to take a serious look at a technical college or vocational school education. Learn a provable hard skill or trade first, something that you're really going to enjoy. Enter the workforce with those skills and gain some practical on-the-job experience for a while. And then consider going for the bachelor's and perhaps even beyond, if that's something you'd like to do. Maybe get a bachelor's in a business/management/leadership program. Now, you have two good things going for you - first, you have that concrete, verifiable skill set. And you'll also have that bigger-picture education that can help you set the stage for a promotion into management or even off on your own as a business owner yourself some day.  

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