Fixing Education Isn’t About Sending More People to Harvard

People flooded Foxconn Technology with résumés at a 2010 job fair in Henan Province, China. (c/o NYT)

Jordan Weissman at The Atlantic solidifies the lessons from the recent focus on the iPhone’s Chinese berth. (See the 1/22/12 NYT Sunday Biz piece — don’t even start with your tl;dr — and the 1/6/12 This American Life podcast).

There are many reasons the US will never make or assemble the iPhone, or reap the benefits of the 700,000 jobs that might entail.   One is the euphamistic “scalability” of the workforce:

It’s being able to wake up 8,000 employees, herd them out of the company’s on-sight dorms, and order them pull a midnight shift fastening glass screens onto phones. In China, workers are cheap, plentiful, and — most importantly — mind bogglingly compliant in ways that America’s culture and its tightly enforced labor laws simply wouldn’t allow.

But the most unintuitive reason is that our workforce has a big, gaping hole in the middle where mid-level engineers, aka the vast majority of those 700,000 jobs, would work.

We’re really good at training super smart engineers, scientists, and designers with numerous advanced degrees that can direct the process.  But we’re not so good at educating people to be thoughtful, skilled, mid-level workers to do repetitive jobs that require judgement.  One of the reason is that skilled, vocational education is highly undervalued.  The other is that our K-12 public education system does a poor job at preparing your average student for a 4-year college, let alone vocational education.  Thus,

Our immediate goal shouldn’t be to prep more students for Harvard, Penn State, or University of Central Florida. It should be to find a way to make sure that more than 25% of the students who enroll at community colleges actually graduate within 3 years.

And we need skilled workers not just to fill new jobs — we need them to fill and keep our nation’s current manufacturing jobs.


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