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Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the Twenty-First Century

May 02, 2016

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Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston explain why we need to reinvigorate our system of vocational training to meet the needs and promise of today's students and economy.

If you saw the giveaway for Edward Humes's Door to Door in this space last month, or saw our full review of the book, you read some of his assessment of the logistics and supply chain reasons for the offshoring of American manufacturing in recent decades. He also discussed briefly how that tide may be reversing, those trends shifting, and how some of those jobs may be coming home. Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston explore this new reality at length in their new book, Reskilling America, and they tell us:

 

Indeed, after decades of cheap labor in China replacing American workers, the “Chinese advantage”—China’s labor-cost advantage over low-cost states in the United States—has shrunk to 39 percent, making it more cost effective to shorten the supply chain and produce manufactured goods close to the markets where they will be consumed.

 

Their book, the one we have for you today, is basically a crash course in this new paradigm, its implications for the workforce, and the best way to educate American workers in response to it. The great thing about the jobs returning is that they are higher-skilled than the manufacturing jobs that left, and demand higher pay. The trouble is in our system of, and beliefs about, higher education.

The predominant message to high school students, for the last three decades at least, has been that one simply must get to college if they want any hope at a decent, middle class life. It turns out that may be a counterproductive message for both those students and the American economy. Because, while there are many places in the country where there are too many low-skilled workers for the low-skilled positions available, there are also many where there are too many high-skilled workers for the positions available. In most places, however, there are more jobs available to so-called "middle-skill" workers than there are people to fill them, and it is also where the majority of job growth in likely to be in the decades ahead. And it is not just in manufacturing that there’s a gap. America’s aging population is leaving a huge gap in health care workers, especially in personal care and home health aides, and in the trades.

 

Indeed, according to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, personal care and home health aides top the list of jobs with the fastest projected growth, expected to increase by 70 percent between 2010 and 2020. Also on that list are the skilled trades, such as for carpenters, brick masons, block masons, stonemasons, tile and marble setters (and their helpers), as well as for pipe layers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters, who will all be needed when the current generation heads into retirement.

 

To Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston, authors of Reskilling America, the obvious answer to that mismatch is a reinvigoration of the nation’s vocational schools and community colleges. They point to examples in other countries, specifically Germany, where this kind of training is still robust and high-end manufacturing more widespread.

 

As a result, in a period when the United States faces catastrophically high unemployment rates for young people—verging on 50 percent among inner-city African American men—the Germans boast a youth unemployment rate of 7 percent.

 

Workforce and vocational training were once the most common forms of gaining the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. In an effort to make sure our next generation is always better off than those that came before, and because of the status associated with it, parents and policy makers have shifted their focus to higher education. And while much of the political discourse on expanding access to college is commendable, it is also a false panacea. It ignores the vastly different levels of educational opportunities available to students of different economic backgrounds before college (policy efforts to change that reality are applauded by the authors, but they don’t pretend that it is not, in fact, reality) that can be bridged by community colleges. Perhaps more importantly for those entering the workforce, that supposed panacea does not meet the needs of the marketplace, or realities of the labor market those students are entering.

We, of course, don’t want to put different economic classes on different “tracks” in education, but because of the way education is funded in our country, that reality already implicitly exists. What we need to do, the authors contend, is work to change that reality in the long-term, to make sure all students have every resource—both financial and educational—they need to get into college and be successful once they're there. But alternate opportunities and possibilities to succeed in a highly competitive, world-wide labor market after high school exist now and are there for the taking if we reinvest in training workers entering the workforce.

The strength of the American economy was built on the strength of the middle class, but many of the ladders and footholds that were once extended to climb into the middle class have been pulled up or eroded. We must find ways to rebuild them, not only for the benefit of American workers but to strengthen the American economy as a whole. Helping young adults gain more access to the financial tools and support they need to afford college is one way to do that, but it is not the only way. And it may not be the most effective way.

 

Indeed, jobs requiring vocational training comprise eighteen of the top thirty jobs expected to grow the fastest between 2010 and 2020.

 

Of course we need to fight for educational equity for students pre-K through college, but we also need to give them access to the proper tools to succeed once they get past it, and no ideology, not even a “college for all” ideology, should stand in the way of that. For that reason, the authors eschew ideology and focus on the reality in front of us instead, offering practical solutions and policy objectives to best meet it. And the reality is that there really is a skills mismatch and jobs gap that could be addressed if we are more proactive about it.

It is a divide that, if remedied, could help millions of people entering the workforce, older adults adjusting to the disruption so lauded by business talking heads today today, and the American economy overall, in profound ways.

Instead, community colleges, vocational schools, and smaller state schools are either being largely ignored or actively defunded (as we know well here is Wisconsin). Katherine Newman and Hella Winston explain in very clear terms why states such as ours “will pay a high price for these shortsighted moves” if we don’t reverse course. The great irony, perhaps tragedy, of the situation is that we pioneered this form of education in America—especially here in Wisconsin, where our state legislature created the first vocational and adult education system in the country back in 1912. To succeed today, we need to reenergize vocational training.

 

To get back to that point, parents and policy makers will need to understand that the traditional college route may not provide the job security that it once guaranteed the nation’s youth.

 

Young people themselves will have to rediscover the respect we once accorded middle-skilled professions. The family wage they provide is the answer to many of the problems of structural unemployment and high poverty …

 

This is a book for anyone interested in the changes taking place in the logistics of manufacturing and their implications for the American worker, in the changing demographics of America and what that means for what jobs are available, for anyone in the trades or the education of those entering them, and for decision and policy makers in business and government looking for the best way forward in light of all this information.

We have 20 copies available.

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