Kids aren’t going into technical trades anymore, at least not at the levels needed, and not with the proficiency in foundational skills they need to start off well.
I agree that the problem really does stretch back to at least the Reagan era – I entered junior high in 1981, and even then “the trades” in the form of shop classes were looked down upon. (And don’t get me started on the counterproductive-verging-on-malpractice “guidance counselor” advice I received urging me to go into social science instead of engineering.) While I abhor the straitjacket elements of the German educational/career system (the part about making your life’s career choice at thirteen and being stuck with it, in particular), they do seem to have the right idea in exposing students to industrial work early and in the intensive training in trades those with interest and inclination in them receive. Even the German engineers I’ve worked with have had what to me seems like an extensive trades-level education in relevant areas as part of their engineering program — it’s embarrassing to call myself an engineer around them, given that they typically have extensive hands-on experience with machining and lab work and the like that I somehow managed to obtain a BSME without. (Sadly, I have far more hands-on experience from my summer internship in Germany and my various at-home engineering projects than I obtained even in fifteen years of employment with Lockheed Martin.)
What the article seems to overlook (consciously or otherwise) is the reason for pushing more kids into college prep courses and then into college, regardless of inclination or ability: status consciousness.
As noted above, the trades path was looked down upon even in the early 1980s. It was considered low-class, something the poor or dumb kids did – the ones too dumb to get into the military, which career was held in similar low regard at that time. Those of us in the “gifted and talented”
sham track were most certainly conditioned to see ourselves as “better” than that, as destined for college and white-collardom, and therefore above getting our hands dirty with shop classes or candystriping or the like even if they might later enhance higher-status careers like engineering or medicine. And no doubt this was pushed on the parents as well – my hometown at that time was extremely status/class conscious, so imagine the horror of your average doctor or lawyer parent being told by a teacher that their brilliant little snowflake has an aptitude and potential interest in something as crude as a trade: “No, no, my little Johnny is going to college, to be a doctor/lawyer like me, or at least something white-collar or academic enough that I won’t be embarrassed when the boys at the Country Club ask about his career. Tradesman just won’t reflect well on my status at all.”
One essential element in turning this situation around needs to be a change in perspective on the economic status of trades. This seems to be happening, given the trend in articles over the past several years musing on how plumbers and electricians and the like are making good use of their scarcity to rake in white-collar-level incomes (on top of often being independent small businessmen, something that in itself should afford one a healthy economic status anyway). Once these SWPL parents realize that Johnny’s choice nowadays is between fixing plumbing, running wires, programming a CNC machine, etc. and making a decent and productive living at it, or putting both himself and them on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt to fund a college-level credential in a trendy niche subject whose job prospects consist exclusively of fast-food management, telephone customer service, stripping for truckers, or a futile chase after increasingly scarce Non-Hierarchical General Assembly Facilitator positions at what’s left of the local Occupy squat, they may find new competitive value among their status peers in aggressively pushing their kids in the former direction.
(Note that “Johnny” here is your average kid – many kids have certain aptitudes, for instance in STEM subjects, which make it economically worthwhile and personally rewarding to go on to college and then compete for comparatively scarce career positions. The problem is treating all kids like this by default, forcing them onto the white-collar college track when there are insufficient career positions to support such a policy and when they as individuals may have other – or no – inclinations and talents. It’s just as unfair to the “Johnnys” as it is to the kids with aptitude but fewer resources, who bear the opportunity cost of indifferent kids getting unwanted and unusable credential degrees instead of the useful educations the latter might have obtained in their place.)
Hat tip to Rand Simberg, who observes: “The entire educational establishment in this country is a disaster, from top to bottom.” Indeed.