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