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Obama Hard HatIn his January 2014 State of the Union Address and thereafter, President Barack Obama has repeatedly mentioned apprenticeships and vocational education when discussing the jobs crisis.  One might be critical as to why the nation’s first black president would advocate for a policy that has been historically exclusive and harmful to African Americans.  In his autobiography, Malcolm X notes, when telling his middle school English teacher of his aspirations to be a lawyer, the teacher advised him to instead become a carpenter.  To Malcolm, this was in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly affirming advice he gave to less-promising white students.  Malcolm X’s case was not an aberration, but reflected a general trend of structural and systemic discrimination that operated through vocational education programs (where African Americans were tracked into lower-paying jobs) and apprenticeships.  This history involved reifying and reinforcing class divisions along racial lines.  Apprenticeships can be problematic in that often they are awarded to relatives or friends who share the same racial background as the master technician.  As many have noted, white social networks often function to exclude African Americans from potential jobs.

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In last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson had a nice article debunking the so-called skills gap in manufacturing. He noted that manufacturers constantly complain about not being able to hire skilled workers – yet they offer starting pay as low as $10 per hour.

One manufacturer Davidson spoke with stated that workers with an associate degree can make $15 per hour in his factory. Yet, as Davidson noted “a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.” The problem is not lack of skilled workers, but that manufacturers are offering wages too low to attract skilled workers.

Some employers are willing to train but even they are facing a deficit in basic math and science skills, which are increasingly important for modern, computer-based manufacturing. Davidson closes by suggesting that “so-called skills gap is really a gap in education, and that affects all of us.”

While it may be true there is a general education deficit in the US, this barely scratches this surface of a deeper problem facing postindustrial economies: what kinds of jobs are replacing formerly-well paying manufacturing jobs as these are outsourced to low-wage countries and lost to advancing technologies?

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