Don’t discount the value of a trade education | Don Brunell

In “the good old days,” schools emphasized “reading, writing and arithmetic” taught to the tune of the hickory stick.

In “the good old days,” schools emphasized “reading, writing and arithmetic” taught to the tune of the hickory stick.

But today, we seem to have created a two-tiered education philosophy. College-bound students are encouraged to learn science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But STEM skills are not emphasized for students going directly into the job market, the military or to a trade school.

That’s a mistake.

Part of the problem started with our parents’ generation. For example, my father was a World War II veteran who used the GI bill to become a journeyman electrician. He was good at math and science, and over his 50-year career, he became a master electrician certified to work on everything from toasters to utility substations.

But my father, like so many of his generation, encouraged us to learn science and math so we could go to college and become doctors, engineers and teachers. He viewed learning a skilled craft as a fallback in case we didn’t make it through college.

Nobody can fault our parents for pushing us toward college. But they missed the mark in thinking their skilled crafts were second-class professions. My father worked mostly on major construction projects, and even though the work was sporadic, he earned a good living for his family.

Today, those same opportunities exist for our children and grandchildren because companies are begging for skilled workers.

STEM skills are particularly important for today’s students. The job market is saturated with unskilled workers while companies are begging for people who are trained and certified welders, electricians, plumbers, iron workers, technicians and mechanics.

Recently CBS’ “60 Minutes” aired a segment on America’s skills gap.

According to the report, since January 2009, more than 20 million Americans have been either out of work or underemployed. Yet despite that staggering number, there are more than three million job openings in the U.S. — 500,000 in manufacturing alone — that aren’t being filled because employers can’t find qualified workers.

For example, at its aerospace plant in Whitehall, Mich., manufacturing giant Alcoa has 2,100 employees working three shifts a day, seven days a week producing parts that make jet engines 50 percent more fuel efficient. But 27 skilled jobs remain unfilled because of the lack of qualified workers.

Here in Washington, paper manufacturer Longview Fibre says the skills gap is its biggest obstacle in trying to fill about 40 jobs at its Longview facility. Most of the applicants lack the necessary math, language or computer skills to work at the company’s mill.

Part of the problem is that public schools have a difficult time finding good math and science teachers. Why would bright young math and science majors opt for teaching when they can earn more applying their skills in the private sector?

Perhaps it’s time to apply a private sector principle to public education: differential pay. In the private sector, not all employees are paid the same; their pay reflects the priority and value of their skills. Not so in education. Why not pay more for teachers skilled in science, technology, engineering and math?  Why not have exceptional teachers mentor younger, inexperienced teachers?

If we want to put people back to work and encourage companies to invest in manufacturing and technology in America, we need to encourage our children and our schools to emphasize not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but STEM skills, as well.

Otherwise, the unemployment gap for unskilled workers will widen and that is not good for our state or our nation.

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