News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Thursday, February 23, 2012

College degrees in being irrelevant


There is a story in the Washington Post that claims there are many jobs to be had in the U.S. that can't be filled because there are no qualified applicants.  They are manufacturing jobs that require knowledge of computers and computer-run machines.  

 The reasons for the skilled-labor shortage are summarized:


Through a combination of overseas competition and productivity gains, the United States has lost nearly 4 million manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years. But many manufacturers say the losses have not yielded a surplus of skilled factory workers.

Instead, as automation has transformed factories and altered the skills needed to operate and maintain factory equipment, the laid-off workers, who may be familiar with the old-fashioned presses and lathes, are often unqualified to run the new.

Compounding the problem is a demographic wave. At some factories, much of the workforce consists of baby boomers who are nearing retirement. Many of the younger workers who might have taken their place have avoided the manufacturing sector because of the volatility and stigma of factory work, as well as perceptions that U.S. manufacturing is a “dying industry.”
It outlines the prospects for filling those jobs:

But attracting younger workers onto the factory floor can be difficult. Machine-shop classes have been cut in some high schools. Many high schools, moreover, would rather focus on helping children get into four-year colleges than preparing them for vocational pursuits.






The story may reflect a trend, but one must be cautious because it does not accurately summarize the history of how and why manufacturing jobs were eliminated, nor does it accurately portray some facts about the workforce and the reasons there are not enough workers to step into the work of automated assembly lines. 


 It brought to mind some curriculum changes at Northern State University which have long puzzled me.  Northern State had two programs which were quite successful, but which disappeared.   Some higher powers somewhere decided they weren't needed or wanted and got rid of them.  When I say they were successful, I mean that they attracted students and seemed to supply a need for people educated in specialized areas.

One program was Industrial Technologies.  The other was Special Education in communication disorders.  There is still a special education program, but it is not the one that focused on those with cognitive and communicative challenges.  

 What puzzled me about the communication disorders program, which includes speech therapy, is that we had a good number of students majoring in the field.  During the summers, the school parking lots were filled with cars from North Dakota because teachers came to Northern for the course work necessary for them to maintain their certification.  Oddly enough, the president who was at Northern during the time that the program disappeared had a doctorate in communication disorders.  I remember asking some of the faculty who worked in the special education department why the program was being eliminated and they attributed it to  trade-off demanded by the Board of Regents to make the University of South Dakota the sole state school to offer the program.  Augustana College also has a program in communication disorders.  

The industrial technologies department was another puzzle.  Initially, the program was largely geared toward training teachers who would teach drafting and industrial shop programs in high schools and vocational schools.  However, as manufacturing machinery became more automated, the program shifted toward training people in the computer and programming skills for operating machinery and in related areas of management and technology.  I do know that when the department was put in the college of business, administrators began working toward the elimination of the program. I had students in the required supporting English classes who told me they would have to transfer to another state to get the courses they needed in the field.  The business faculty seemed to look down upon the department as a kind of college manual arts unit.  What seemed like a program that could supply people who could operate the high tech manufacturing equipment and train others to do it came to an end.  Northern offered both associate and baccalaureate degrees in the field at one time.

If I recall conversations I had over coffee over the elimination of the Industrial Technologies Department, there was some problem in recruiting faculty who could teach the technology and a matter of coming up with the money for the machinery and computers needed for an industrial technology laboratory.  The NSU faculty had the concept, but not the support or resources.  Ironically, people who  can train workers in the new technologies are now what is in such short supply, and it is affecting the job market and America's competitive place in manufacturing.  

However, there is an aspect of the history of America's decline in manufacturing that is not accurately presented.  While cheap labor in other countries was a factor, it was not an imperative one.  Corporations have wanted to kill off the unions, if at all possible.  Executives do not want to negotiate wages and working conditions; they want to dictate them.  And when they had a president who took the lead in breaking unions, as Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers, the anti-union movement was given a boost.  When Reagan further announced that the American economy was to change from a manufacturing and production economy to a service economy, he gave a signal to American companies that unions could be defeated with the full sanction of the federal government by taking manufacturing offshore.  There was no effort at all put into keeping manufacturing in the U.S. and to develop workforce that could handle the new technologies.  

If American industry is having trouble finding workers to staff its production facilities, it is because it got exactly what it wanted.  And the people have had to pay.  Heavily.  







 

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