Monday, August 25, 2008

Skilled Trades or College - Make the Right Choice

By Ronald Rainson
for the Journal Star
Posted Jul 27, 2008 @ 12:20 AM

I recently read "Poll: Education not adding up" in the Peoria Journal Star (June 28). It seems from the poll that parents would like to see their children exposed to a little more math. Parents and officials love to say that, since it sounds wise and concerned. But what are they actually doing about it? Not much.

A poll that recommends a little more math in our public schools is a lot like suggesting we should use more vegetables to offset the nation's oil shortage - too little, too late. It's clear the U.S. isn't developing its intellectual capacity. Public schools, in an effort to be all things to all people, no longer fulfill their primary mission. Thank goodness we have international students to fill the technology void created by our public school system. America graduates a paltry 70,000 engineers a year. India does three to four times that many, and China even more.

I looked at the Associated Press survey results in the article. There was only one question about subject matter. The rest were about discipline, facilities and expectations. I was with the Detroit Board of Education many years ago, which oversaw 350 schools. We would build a new school and it would be trashed in a matter of weeks. New facilities are not the answer. And there is no point in talking about discipline. The lawyers took away the teachers' authority decades ago. It is a wonder we can get anyone to teach. So, we are left with expectations, and an appeal to the students.

Ask yourself why the technical work is going overseas. It isn't for price anymore, it is for talent. My company does engineering right here in Peoria, but 80 percent of the employees are from another country. Engineering is hard. Students who are smart enough to study math and science often don't pursue technical careers, as they think it will be too difficult. This isn't a new phenomenon. I was interviewing good math students who were college-bound some 20 years ago and heard the same story: "too hard, can't get good grades." Grades were everything to these high achievers; grades were more important than knowledge.

Students need better encouragement, rather than constant pressure to get good grades. We are asking them to take it on faith that getting good grades is worth the effort. Let's show these kids why they need good grades (which are just a measure, not an objective), why they should seek knowledge, and why they should strive to succeed. Why do we dumb down the classroom and make millionaires out of the best of the best athletes? If you can't make it on the basketball team, they cut you. If you can't make it in class, what happens?

Meanwhile, students who don't do well in math and science in high school often are skilled in many other ways, but they get pushed into college anyway. They are added to the tens of thousands of graduates with obscure, non-technical degrees who, as you read this, are still searching for good jobs. Had they entered the skilled trades they would be making as much as a graduate engineer, and no one could move their job to India.

If you want to go to college, don't waste your time on a degree in art appreciation. Art is wonderful and important (don't make me out to be a philistine), but if you can't make a living, you're never going to own any art to appreciate. Study something that will empower you to make a contribution to society's health, comfort and well-being. Study something that will enable you to make useful contributions and to be suitably rewarded. Work hard for four or five years, take the hard courses and set yourself up for life.

If you don't want to go to college, consider the skilled trades instead - electrician, plumber, pipe fitter, lineman, diesel mechanic, etc. These careers pay more than most liberal arts degrees, and they are on par with engineering. Plus, your work cannot usually be moved to another country.
My father was a non-English speaking immigrant who lived through two major wars, and he told me he noticed one thing after the bombs stopped falling - if you could work with the tools, you ate. If you couldn't, you didn't.

Shouldn't the school system exist to serve the public good? Don't educators know they are responsible for producing the country's most important asset? Don't worry about having gas to drive to work - if we don't recapture our intellectual leadership, there aren't going to be all that many jobs to drive to. I've managed technical employees around the U.S. and in several countries long enough to know that human resources are the key to the prosperity of any enterprise and any country, not oil. Students should learn to do something. Engineering will take you far, and science and engineering is the direction I would urge students to go, but the skilled trades are not to be ignored.

Maybe it is time for a different model. What if a student could request a career outcome, and the school would train her accordingly? What if a company could order a student with the exact qualifications to rise to the top, and the school would provide him?

Ronald Rainson was previously Vice President of Operations at Central Illinois Light Company and Chairman & CEO of Environmental Science & Engineering. He was also Chairman of Bradley University's College of Engineering and Technology Advisory Board for ten years. He is currently Chairman & CEO of Axis, Inc., Peoria and Rainson Associates, LLC., Michigan. He is working with the city of Peoria and Bradley University to encourage more students to pursue technical training.

1 comment:

Randall said...

Terrific analysis of the situation; people with math and science background are in very high demand. When people prepare themselves for technical roles(skilled trades or engineering) they'll have a tool kit that will stay with them a long time. My evidence is this: try to get a plumber, electrician or a carpenter to come to your house and work on something.