- - Thursday, July 11, 2019

While much of the United States recently was ripped by tornadoes and floods, Minnesota, where I live, nearly napped through it all, comparatively speaking. Granted, this did not play to the heroically extreme image we have of ourselves climatically, but it did free people like me from having to pick up chainsaws and other heavy-duty pieces of equipment and do competent and socially useful things with them. I know my limitations, and other than eating and typing, working with my hands is a major one.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot over the last few years about the wide range of skills the American economy requires, very much including manual ones. One spur has been a fascinating book written by a multi-talented guy, Matthew Crawford, who fixes high-end motorcycles — and also holds a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago.

One of Mr. Crawford’s arguments (my paraphrase) in “Shop Class as Soulcraft” is that it takes more cognitive firepower to figure out what’s wrong with a complex engine and then fix it than it often does to perform any number of office jobs — and which, not incidentally, demand four-year and sometimes graduate degrees. In a similar spirit, a senior educator with responsibility for strengthening university-industry ties recently told me, “I don’t think it’s any easier to start a two-year program in electrical work, or HVAC, or machine tool technology than it is to start a four-year liberal arts degree.” I agree.

My intent — especially around graduation time — is not to scare away young people who might be interested in working in the trades, construction, manufacturing or other technical and hands-on fields. Rather, it’s to affirm that such jobs and careers can be intellectually, not just physically, satisfyingly. Not to mention financially attractive. As for common math insecurities and phobias, it’s amazing how teaching and learning math in applied ways enables many people who think they’re terrible with numbers and equations to master them, along with undergirding fears.

In broader national terms, will the United States continue undercutting itself economically if we persist in training too few men and women for a wide range of technical jobs? The answer is abundantly yes, especially since an estimated 10,000 baby boomers, many of whom are highly skilled in essential occupations, reach 65 every day, and will do so for years to come.

One study, cited by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, estimated “average” manufacturers in the United States losing 11 percent of their annual earnings because of talent shortages, with another research project estimating an average loss of $14,000 for each unfilled position. Both are substantial hits, with both studies, tellingly, more than a decade old. Current data are likely worse.

What’s standing in the way of more young people preparing themselves for technical jobs, and not just in manufacturing? Maybe most powerful is a four-year college bias which often defeats student interest in pertinent training in community colleges, trade schools, the armed forces and apprenticeships. As witness, for instance, 95 percent of high school sophomores in a U.S. Department of Education study saying they would go directly to college after high school, with 85 percent of them aspiring to at least a four-year degree.

Or 92 percent of parents in a Gallup Poll saying their children would, in fact, go to college.

With a third study finding that “American teenagers are less realistic about their prospects of obtaining a bachelor’s degree than young people in most other developed countries.”

How to lessen the four-year bias? Ideas include using social media to educate and enthuse young people — and their parents — about great jobs and careers they’ve never thought about seriously, if at all. Collaborative training programs for teenagers involving men and women in education, business, labor and government. And there’s the need for educators and parents to begin honoring high school seniors who choose non-four-year routes as energetically as they celebrate kids going off to places that some parents recently shelled out a million dollars for.

At root, we must get much better at honoring the importance and recognizing the satisfactions and joys of working one’s hands. Think of it as the art of craft.

I’m good friends with one of the major contractors who worked on U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, home of the Vikings. At a breakfast meeting with him one morning in 2016 as the stunning addition to the city’s skyline was nearing completion, I began waxing about how thousands of men and women had worked on it. And how, for the rest of their lives they could tell their children and grandchildren with deep pride, perhaps as they drove by together:

“I helped build that.”

• Mitch Pearlstein is founder and senior fellow of Center of the American Experiment. His newest book is “Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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