August 18, 2004

Why shop teachers are the answer

Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber has an interesting piece up commenting on Drezner commenting on a Wall Street Journal piece that neither Henry nor I has read through lack of having coughed up the money to see it.

Less frustrated now, let me make a few points.

The deficit in skilled machinists has been a problem since the 80s. One of my Dad's coworkers - a university professor - quit his job to work as a machinist in a custom interior design shop. Why? Turns out skilled machinists in the 80s in Jersey could pull down $40 an hour, and the state university system couldn't compete. A prof's salary at the time could easily be under $30,000. Before the '89 recession, some outfits that Dad sent his students to for interships were importing machinists from the Philippines. His teacher-ed students often quit the programme to go work in better paid machinist jobs.

Actually, machinist work isn't quite as specialised as all that. It is skilled work, but moving from one set of machinery to another is not quite the intensive retraining that a shift from office work to industrial work would be. It does require some investment, and because the machines themselves may be quite expensive and rare, this training is traditionally an employer-born expense, as Henry points out. However, before an employer will hire you and train you at considerable cost, they often would like to know that you have some aptitude for the work and some basic knowledge of the trade. This entry-level knowledge was traditionally acquired at a trade school, a vocational school, or a high school shop class.

I know all this because my father was a high school shop teacher.

He quit to become a professor of education, teaching new shop teachers. This was not an especially stable business, since he entered it at the very moment when high school shop programmes were closing. But I will venture the guess - unbacked by any but my snide sense of certainty - that the lack of highly specialised machinists is less a problem than the lack of good trainee candidates coming from vocational and trade schools and the lack of high school shop classes to point prospective machinists in that direction.

In the early days of what its critics like to call - somewhat accurately - Prussian model education, shop class was the very core of the curriculum. A high school education was an advanced education, and the cost was only justified by the claim that these schools could produce more productive workers. Thus, industrial arts were taught in schools.

Later, factory work changed a good deal as labour-saving machinery was introduced and productivity increased. The post-war boom in college admissions, and the pressure to send more children towards university education in the aftermath of Sputnik, diminished what had previously been the one demonstrably useful part of high school. Traditional gender segregation - boys took shop and girls took home ec - led in the 70s to a new line of attack on shop classes as gender-biased. Finally, schools forced boys to take home ec and girls to take shop. This proved unpopular, and in the 80s when suddenly computers became the future, it was simpler and cheaper to just get rid of shop altogether and just teach office skills.

By that time, schools were paying lots of insurance for their shop classes. There's always a risk of getting blinded because some dumb kid works without his safety glasses, or chopping his fingers off. When I took shop in 8th grade, the teacher was on the brink of retirement, and it was clear that the district had no intention of replacing him.

Now, shop is rareity in America. I said a couple posts ago that education is not without its compromises. This was another one.

Machinists are better paid, and far more often unionised, than clerks at Walmart. Their workman's comp plans are usually pretty good, and the pay is enough to live pretty well. Doing that kind of thing strikes me as a better deal than lots of insecure, underpaid office or retail jobs.

It seems to me that perhaps instead of standardised testing or useless charter schools, the US could do worse than to invest in some shop teachers.

Posted 2004/08/18 18:11 (Wed) | TrackBack

I've talked to people about the idea that every HS graduate should be immediately employable on graduation. Even college-bound kids usually need to work while going to school. If they were able to earn $15/hr instead of 7, their education would benefit.

I do remember that even in the 60's, even in a school that graduated only 50-80 people a year, tracking happened. The shop/ ag/ typing/ home-ec kids were branded, even though few of them wanted the academic track, and even though only 50% or so of the academic-track kids actually graduated from college.

Where does the liberal-arts-bum fit into the US class system? There's something odd going on, because a lot of the educated don't do too well. I think that this has a lot to do with Republican populism -- the resentment of fairly successful con-college people against snotty college people who are not necessarily better off financially.

Posted by: Zizka at August 19, 2004 1:36

There is certainly an anti-intellectual streak in America which seems to fit poorly the public emphasis on education that has become almost an article of faith. Tracking is loathsome, and I'm happy to see the end of it. But what this seems to have meant in practice was eliminating all but the academic track. That doesn't make much sense to me.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 19, 2004 9:52


Not only was your 8th grade shop teacher on the rbink of retirement. He was also insane!!!!!

Mr Locaro

Posted by: Mathias Bolton at August 20, 2004 15:28


Not only was your 8th grade shop teacher on the rbink of retirement. He was also insane!!!!!

Mr Locaro

Posted by: Mathias Bolton at August 20, 2004 15:28

God, yes! He was insane. I remember. And he had neanderthal attitudes about girls taking shop. I still remember his lectures on that.

Posted by: Scott Martens at August 20, 2004 16:10

Alas, the Neanderthal attitudes remain. Here in liberal Portland OR, my son was told by a PE teacher in about 1987 that women should not work outside the home, and a little earlier the daughter of a coworker was discouraged from going into veterinary (being a girl was bad enough, but she was black too). The OSU veterinary school in fact did discourage women, and so her HS counselor wasn't entirely wrong.

Posted by: Zizka at August 20, 2004 22:48

I used to work for a surveying-instrument dealer in Cambridge, MA. The repairmen were all highly-skilled craftsmen, and proud of their work -- and all 5 of them were in their mid-fifties.

Fixing theodolites and transits might not be rocket science, but it pays well and there's plenty of demand. Yet few people -- or few Americans, anyway -- seem to be interested in such careers nowadays. Not sexy enough.

Posted by: vaara at August 26, 2004 15:45
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