At a dinner for Silicon Valley executives in early 2011, President Barack Obama asked Apple CEO Steve Jobs what it would take to bring iPhone manufacturing back to America. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” the typically blunt Apple cofounder told the president. Examining Jobs’s claim, the New York Times looked at Apple’s vast Chinese operations and found that workers there not only worked for less than Americans did; more of them were skilled. To oversee production and guide some 200,000 assembly-line workers, Apple, for instance, needed 8,700 industrial engineers—positions that required more than a high school diploma but less than a full college degree. While abundant in China, these kinds of employees are harder to find in the United States. “The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need,” an unnamed Apple executive told the Times.
That’s a refrain that more and more American business executives are uttering these days. Even as politicians argue over how to create or keep “good jobs” in the U.S., a recent National Federation of Independent Businesses survey reported that the percentage of small businesses saying that they get no or few qualified applicants for available jobs has hit a 17-year high. Studies estimate that hundreds of thousands of positions in manufacturing firms went unfilled, even during the post-financial-crisis downturn and subsequent weak recovery, because of the lack of skilled workers. “Open manufacturing jobs are at an all-time high,” the former CEO of Siemens USA, the industrial giant, observed in December.
Much of the problem, say business leaders and employment experts, is an educational failure. Career and technical training in the U.S. hasn’t evolved to keep up with the transformation of the modern economy—with many schools even slashing funding for vocational education. Worse, parents, guidance counselors, and even politicians keep pushing students to enter four-year college programs that provide no clear paths to employment. Meantime, jobs in traditional blue-collar trades—from manufacturing to automobile repair—have grown more sophisticated and demanding. A huge gap between job seekers’ skills and employers’ needs has resulted.
The good news is that some visionary businesses, educators, and nonprofit funders are intensifying efforts to revamp and upgrade career education—twenty-first-century vocational education—in the United States. The obstacles to such efforts are many, including school officials’ reluctance to partner with industry and lingering prejudices against vocational schooling. But for the rising number of students participating in programs that tailor education to career goals—programs that emphasize work-related experience and teach to the high standards necessary for modern jobs—the payoff has been impressive. Now the challenge is to build on those successes to ignite a broader cultural change that makes high-quality career training central to American education.
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