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Wheres the Tech in Technical Education

February 9, 2001
Related Topics: Basic Skills Training, Featured Article
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The Clinton administration investedheavily in training America's youth in computer and other "high tech"applications. Grant funding flowed like the mighty Mississippi out of WashingtonD.C. to fund computer training, computer repair, software development, and so onfor America's youth while more traditional skills-based education withered onthe vine.

America is funding thedigital classroom at the expense of her vocational programs.

    The vision for theClinton administration was to, "…ensure that every American child whograduates from high school has the best chances possible to succeed and flourishin the burgeoning digital economy." (March, 1997 televised pressconference) In short, the government's vision for America's economy seems to beone where the digital dollar reins supreme, dominating the world's digitaleconomy (at the expense of traditional manufacturing and production).

    Indeed, manyeconomic projections have the American economy so dominated by high-tech thatthey predict we will "farm out" our menial manufacturing jobs to othercountries -a dangerous strategic posture.

    I'm sure that we canall remember our high school years where the "smart" kids prepared togo to college and the "dumb" kids were wasting their time at thevocational school making clocks, building furniture and repairing cars. Thisperception became more prevalent in the educational mentality of the 90s andcontinues to dominate current educational thinking.

    To paraphrase,"If you have some brains and the test scores to prove it, we'll give you asubstantial amount of training and experience (and funding) to learn computersand other "high tech" topics. If you don't meet the standards, we'llfunnel you into vocational training where you can learn just enough to get a jobthat pays slightly higher than minimum wage once you graduate."

    America is fundingthe digital classroom at the expense of its vocational programs. VocationalDirectors constantly decry their suffocating lack of funding, lack ofeducational emphasis and lack of respect that eventually pays out into pooreducational and work opportunities for the students.

    What does all thishave to do with the title of this article? I suspect that a substantial numberof readers ply their trade in one of America's many manufacturing facilities.

    I myself manage thetraining function at one of the world's premier super alloy manufacturingfacilities. Our workers produce metals of the highest quality for applicationsranging from the International Space Station to electric range elements. Thevast majority of the jobs in our facility are vocational in nature. They involveworking intimately with the metal and the equipment associated with itsmanufacture.

    Ninety percent ofour production workforce has only a high school diploma -they simply don't needcollege or computer-oriented technical training to perform the tasks assignedthem. Their required knowledge of computers is usually limited to reading and/orentering data, nothing more. This is not predicted to change substantially overthe next decade.

    The government'semphasis on computer education has adversely impacted vocational training to thepoint that industry is spending increasing amounts of their shrinking budgets toprovide basic technical skills training that, historically, employees broughtwith them to the gate. A cursory search of our company's training records yieldsthe following:

YearsEmployeesw/at Least 1 Year of Vol-TechEmployeesw/Less Than Least 1 Year of Vol-Tech
1972-8558%42%
1986-9543%57%
1996-200026%74%
Archivedrecords prior to 1972 do not reliably indicate participation in vocationaleducation.  Standard error ± 3 %.

    Between 1972 and1995, approximately half of production employees hired had at least a basicknowledge of vocational processes (basic carpentry, electrical maintenance,welding, sheet metal fabrication, mechanical maintenance, etc.).

    This meant that theamount of basic technical education -and therefore time and money -that had totake place for these employees to be a profitable addition to the company wasminimal. The table also implies that over the last four years, our "basictraining" expenditure had to increase to compensate. It simply takes moretime and money to bring a new hire up to speed on the work processes of theirjobs.

You can teach a robot toweld, but you can't make it climb on the roof of the powerhouse and repair ahigh pressure steam line.

    This is evident inthe Maintenance Technician training we provide internally. For example, we offera welding class to our maintenance trainees as part of their curriculum. In thepast, a large number of trainees had prior training in welding; many werepermitted to "test out" of the training by completing a series ofpractical welding tests.

    In later years, thispractice was dropped because more and more trainees needed basic weldinginstruction -they had no formal vocational training prior to coming to work forus. Our data that suggests that, of our maintenance trainees, those whograduated prior to 1985 have significantly more formal vocational experience andstronger technical skills than those who graduated after 1985. Our trainingcosts for the welding curriculum alone has more than doubled over the last 20years (adjusted for inflation).

    There is light atthe end of this long, dark tunnel. New legislation, particularly the WorkforceInvestment Act (WIA), eases access to Federal funding for basic skills educationand vocational training. Collaboration between local WIA boards, vocationalcenters, and educational institutions is helping communities trying to work withlocal industry to bolster faltering economies. It is becoming evident to somethat robbing Peter's vocational budget to pay for Paul's computer lab is aself-defeating educational strategy in the long term.

    High-tech computertraining is vital to America's long-term economic success. However, it is onlyone part of a much more complex educational picture. You can teach a robot toweld, but you can't make it climb on the roof of the powerhouse and repair ahigh pressure steam line that has shut down production, costing the company over$10,000 an hour. You need a Technician to do that -a smart one.

The views and opinions expressedherein are those of the author and should not be construed as being shared orendorsed by Special Metals Corporation.


Recent Articles by William C. (Bill) Butler, MS

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