Learning to Labor in the 21st Century
Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston
After decades of off-shoring, downsizing, shuttered factories, and stranded blue collar workers, the United States is on the edge of an industrial renaissance. This is news that would have seemed beyond improbable even a decade ago, but companies like Motorola Mobility, Apple, BMW, Bosch, and Volkswagen are opening plants and committing millions of dollars to build new products here.
These manufacturing jobs are going to look different from the ones that were outsourced beginning in the late 1990s. Changes in technology mean that there will be fewer jobs in these new factories, and they will require different skills, since today’s manufacturing work is largely done in front of a computer. And while the return of jobs is encouraging, it is becoming apparent that those skilled workers are hard to find.
Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the 21st Century, reveals the scope of that skills gap and looks at what the U.S. education system has to do to prepare students entering the workforce with the skills that this industrial renaissance will demand. This training was once the province of a vocational education system that made American manufacturing the envy of the world. Today, vocational education has faltered, despite extraordinarily dedicated teachers and highly motivated working class students. Newman and Winston find an explanation for this disconnect in the ambivalence that parents, policy makers, and educational leaders have toward the blue collar life, the racial politics of “tracking” which derailed training and shunted aside any prospect of high quality vocational education, and the rise of “college for all.”
We may need to turn to models from countries like Germany, with its robust training and apprenticeship system, to resuscitate vocational education in the U.S. But there are signs that such change is possible, as government and industry are beginning to recognize how critical it is for the residents of our industrial cities as well as for our economic prosperity that we seize the opportunities provided by the changing manufacturing landscape.