Quit the Business, Go Back to School

Some skills should be developed in elementary and secondary school ? before employers' recognize a skills gap.

Last month, the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council outlined a 10-year program to train and certify up to 40% of all U.S. production-level workers in “fundamental skills.” MSSC is a Washington-based organization devoted to improving workers’ core knowledge and skills. It developed and promotes the MSSC Training, Assessment, and Credentialing System as a way for workers and students to demonstrate proficiencies in math, science, reading, and writing, as well as problem-solving and teamwork.

Undoubtedly many metalcasters will benefit from efforts to improve the foundational skills of workers, skills that are difficult to quantify but invaluable to employers in an industry and an economy that relies increasingly on high-tech systems and clear-thinking, resourceful employees. To all this — especially this new initiative, the MSSC, and the manufacturers that support it — I say “well done.” This is a development worth applauding, not just for its ambition, but for the clarity of the mission and the substance of the goals it sets.

But, while laudable, this initiative shines an unflattering light on the state of education in the U.S. Last year, a National Association of Manufacturers study (the “Skills Gap Report”) revealed that the lack of skills among domestic manufacturing workers is widespread across industries, and significant in most sectors. NAM predicted that by current trends, U.S. manufacturers will face a shortage of 10 million skilled workers by 2020.

“In survey after survey, our members tell us they are having real difficulty finding qualified applicants,” said John Engler, president of NAM. “We believe this new certification program will help address this growing skills gap by making it clear to workers what skills they need to work in manufacturing, and at the same time, enable manufacturers to identify applicants who have the requisite skills.”

This would be a lesser concern if the skills being sought by employers were highly specialized: operating machinery, for example, or designing new products or processes. Those skills are needed, too, but securing and maintaining those are the employers’ direct responsibility. For this, they train and develop workers who show an aptitude and appreciation for their workplace, the enterprise, and the market they serve.

There is irony in the notion that an industry group is establishing educational standards and certifications, because the roots of the education system’s failure is that it has re-styled itself as an industry. The “education industry” has its own market segments (elementary, secondary, higher eduction, plus numerous specialties); its own experts and careerists; and its own initiatives to seek new models, theories, or “paradigms” when it senses changes in its supply/demand equation.

The skills that MSSC aims now to develop and certify are not “new”; they ought to be instilled in elementary school, developed further in secondary school, and so be applicable throughout an adult’s life. Even more disheartening is the realization that this circumstance is not surprising to anyone who has listened to the tiresome and predictable debates about “education” across the country.

In my experience, these debates center on what new strategy a school district can adopt to resolve some current worry: budget shortfalls, test scores, and so on. They aim to address crises: they do not examine their “mission.”

One strategy the education industry cannot adopt is a back-to-basics approach: that would imply it doesn’t need new revenue for research or resources, new facilities or updated equipment. The education industry can acknowledge it has fallen short of expectations, but only as a justification for a new, more specialized approach. It cannot acknowledge that better educational results require less expertise and more appreciation for fundamental values.

If education is an industry, it is a failed one. It’s fitting that competitors, the MSSC, are stealing their business. It is not an industry: treating it like a commercial enterprise, expecting it to perform like a business, reinforces a flawed assumption. Education is part of our civic foundation, one we must be able to rely on to support and strengthen our shared values and common standards, and the skills we need to prosper.

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