COMMENTARY: Whatever happened to track schooling?
By Kevin Binversie | Wisconsin Reporter
I’m not one of those conservatives who believes all progress — horseless carriages, Velcro, the iPhone— is an abomination, or that our great-grandfathers had it made when they went out wearing spats and morning coats.
Humanity is engaged in constant experimentation, technology improves and evolves and sometimes we hit on solutions that really work and then promptly abandon those solutions for the next shiny object.
I’m thinking about this after reading last weekend’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about Marinette Marine, one of the Badger State’s few defense contractors. Marinette offers high-end training in such trades as welding. Through an innovative deal with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, those Marinette students can apply their training toward an associates degree, while building ships at the company’s shipyards, vessels like the U.S. Navy’s new littoral combat ships.
It’s a win-win-win — except for the guys on the business end of the U.S. Navy’s incoming. But as the Journal reported, Marinette is struggling to fill a 40-person training program. They reached out to nine area high schools and were able to get just seven recruits. The class starts in July.
You can corroborate this evidence of a talent shortage in the 39,000 listings on the state Department of Workforce Development’s Job Center website. There are offerings for good-paying, skilled occupations like electricians, plumbers, welders and mechanics — jobs that a few decades ago were like a family inheritance passed down from generation to generation.
And this no mere blip on the occupational radar.
"I was very amazed at how much of a downturn the trades have taken over the last several decades," Phillip Henslee, Marinette’s HR director told the Journal Sentinel.
Last December, Wisconsin Reporter bureau chief MD Kittle wrote on what is called the “skills gap” by human resource managers and other workforce placement services like Manpower, Inc.
The problem may begin in high schools that no longer produce students for trade jobs and which focus instead on driving students invariably toward college. In his 2008 book “Real Education,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray wrote that “college is not for everyone,” and prodded America’s high schools to begin acknowledging that reality.
Murray believes that high schools should reconsider implementing the old system of tracking in public education. In traditional education tracks, students are placed on a career path based on their educational abilities and personal interests. The purpose seems obvious: to prepare students for life after high school.
Students with the highest academic abilities were placed in the academic track — prepared for college and beyond — while students with lower academic abilities were placed in a track meant to lead them toward vocational jobs.
Tracking in American public schools ended when it was identified as a possible cause of low self-esteem in children on the lower track.
So tracking ended, replaced with a system designed to drive as many kids as possible to four-year colleges and bachelor’s degrees. Kids who might have been highly skilled and well-paid trades people found themselves bored in academic courses — poor performers who left high school with bad grades, low self-confidence, and joblessness. In the meantime, the push toward college may have helped inflate a “higher education bubble” as the price of college rose while the economic return on a college degree plummeted.
I’m not saying people who want to go to college shouldn’t go. I am saying that those involved in the decision — parents, educators, and the kids themselves — must be as ready as possible for the academic and economic realities they are about to face. Do they have the academic muscle to succeed at college? Do they have the financial means to pay for it — including the debt associated with loans? Do their career goals even require a four-year degree?
The current system urging a path toward college may be setting up hundreds of thousands of young people for both failure as well as substantial debt with no means to pay it back. Meanwhile, Wisconsin manufacturers fight one another for the limited supply of high-end blue-collar workers.
To fill jobs, companies recruit each other's employees.
That’s a lose-lose for America.
Mark Kaiser, president of Lindquist Machine Corp. in Green Bay, told the Journal-Sentinel, "If we don't find enough talent, the fact is we are not going to be able to grow our businesses.”
Veteran political blogger Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native. He served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, and has worked at the Heritage Foundation and on numerous state Republican campaigns, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.