What does the future hold for American workers who make things?
The New York Times has been running an occasional series, "Learn to Earn", on programs that give workers the skills they need to get and keep the skilled jobs employers are now creating.
As executive producer of Purple States TV, I've produced accompanying videos which look at this new employment landscape--through the eyes of individuals whose prospects initially seem poor:
- Matt, 19, aced standardized tests but was failing high school math.
- Deere sent Mark, 34, to community college so he could advance from welding to computer-aided manufacturing, then laid him off.
- Linda, 56, featured with Kent, 39, in Sunday's video, above, had only a high school degree when she went to work for a tobacco company. After 28 years, she lost her job.
- Kent gave up on college in his 20’s, and moved from one struggling area of the economy to the next in search of a career.
A growing number of states, employers, and educators now recognize the need to move beyond rigid systems that prescribe a few narrowly defined educational pathways, or that tie training too tightly to a single employer’s requirements, or make workers start from scratch when the job picture changes. (See, for example, the Skills Certification and Career Pathways systems developed by business groups with schools and government.)
What does "moving beyond rigid systems" mean in the lives of the people featured in these videos? They allow Matt, Linda, Kent and others to take advantage of vocational and other educational programs which offer the chance at a new career. Specifically, they mean:
- Integrating the world of practice into classroom learning, and vice versa. The old dichotomy between ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ is outdated.
- Offering a range of pathways: Sometimes, instead of degrees, earning licenses and additional coursework to secure other credentials as needed.
- Building skills that are transferable.
- Investing in relationships that help prospective workers connect the dots.
Matt went to a second high school for hands-on education that turned his math--and his life--around. Kent and Linda earned certificates, not degrees, and Kent went looking for other careers open to someone with his newly acquired skills. Mark's community college teacher kept him focused when he was laid off, helped him find a part-time job to support his family, and introduced him to employers who were seeking the skills he'd acquired.
The futures of these workers have been--and will be-- shaped at every turn by the availability of high school and post-secondary programs that respond flexibly to their needs and to the changing economy.