Hoping to Get a Job at the Local Factory? You Might Need a College Degree
Image: Pexels

Hoping to Get a Job at the Local Factory? You Might Need a College Degree

Many positions now require advanced math and comprehension skills

February 1, 2017

When German engineering firm Siemens Energy opened a gas turbine production plant in Charlotte, it held a job fair to fill 800 positions. Ten thousand people attended the fair. The problem was that fewer than 15 percent of those who applied were able to pass a reading, writing, and math test intended to screen out applicants with less than a ninth-grade education.

"No jobs for high school graduates"

Eric Spiegel recently retired as president and chief executive of Siemens U.S. A.

"In our factories, there's a computer about every 20 or 30 feet," he said. "People on the plant floor need to be much more skilled than they were in the past. There are no jobs for high school graduates at Siemens today."

The same is true at John Deere dealerships. Those working here fix million-dollar farming machinery that is filled with dozens of computers. Repairing tractors and grain harvesters now requires skills in advanced math and comprehension as well as the ability to problem-solve on the fly.

"The toolbox is now a computer," said Andy Winnett, director of John Deere's agricultural program at Washington's Walla Walla Community College.

It is these kinds of well-paying jobs that the president has promised to bring back to working-class communities. According to a Ball State University study, however, almost nine out of 10 jobs that have disappeared since 2000 were lost to automation during the decades-long advance toward an information-driven economy, not to workers in other countries as alleged by Trump.

And even if such jobs come back, a high school diploma is just no longer enough to qualify workers to fill them. But the academic skills that are necessary in today's factory-floor positions and the educational pathways that lead to them are rarely talked about in political debates.

Many people believe that the solution to this problem is for more people to go to college. The problem is that these people often think of a bachelor's degree when they think of college, and the reality is that colleges offer other options as well—alternatives that may be more appropriate for workers in this situation than a bachelor's.

Many new high school graduates go off to four-year schools either not ready for the academic work or not sure why they're there. Government data indicate that 44 percent of such students go directly to a four-year college; however, based on recent trends, less than half will earn a degree in four years or fewer. And although two-year schools have been identified for years as the institutions that provide job training, 80 percent of community college students say that they plan to continue their education and get a bachelor's degree. Others graduate with generic associate's degrees that have little value in the job market.

U.S. students have few feasible paths to middle-skill careers, those jobs requiring more education than a high school diploma but usually not as much as a bachelor's. Calculations by nonprofit National Skills Coalition show that such jobs—in fields such as computer technology, healthcare, construction, and high-skill manufacturing—make up 54 percent of the labor market, though only 44 percent of workers have enough training.

"The bachelor's degree is the gold standard, but the higher education system has to create ways for students to choose training and education in their own time and sequence," said Anthony P. Carnevale, who directs Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "Higher ed needs to respect the dignity of labor."

Employer-College Collaborations

Confronted with this skills gap, more and more employers are collaborating with community colleges to give students both the academic education necessary to achieve success in today's workforce and the particular hands-on skills necessary to get a job with their companies. For instance, John Deere has designed a curriculum and donated farm equipment to many community colleges to training technicians for its network of dealerships. Roughly 15 to 20 students go through Walla Walla's program every semester. Since a John Deere dealership sponsors the students—and since the students work at the dealership for half of the program—most graduate in two years already having a job. On average, technicians earn a starting salary just below $40,000.

Dr. Carnevale's research has shown that 40 percent of middle-skills jobs pay more than $55,000 per year, while some 14 percent pay more than $80,000. In comparison, the median salary for workers starting out with a bachelor's is $50,000.

Many people still associate jobs like those offered by John Deere with students who do poorly in high school, students considered "not college material." To graduate from programs like those at Walla Walla, however, students need to take advanced math and writing courses in high school, subjects usually encouraged only for students going to a four-year college.

It is hard to convince students and their parents to even consider the apprenticeship track, particularly because companies want students with strong academic backgrounds.

Having trouble filling jobs in its Charlotte plant, in 2011 Siemens developed an apprenticeship program for seniors at local high schools combining four years' worth of on-the-job training and an associate's in mechatronics from nearby Central Piedmont Community College. When they're done, graduates have a salary of more than $50,000 per year and no student loans.

"These are not positions for underachievers," said Roger Collins, who recruits Siemens apprentices at 15 high schools in the Charlotte area.

One such student was Chad Robinson. He was one of the top 10 students in his senior class and had a 3.75 grade-point average. The engineering school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte had already accepted him when he informed his parents that he wanted to take another path and apply for the Siemens apprenticeship instead.

"They were very against it," he said—until they went to the open house. "A lot of my friends who majored in engineering in college told me they wish they had done the apprenticeship because my work experience will put me ahead of everyone else."

It is common for executives in Europe to start out in apprenticeships, which are viewed as a respectable path to a profession in numerous fields from hospitality and healthcare to retail and banking.

In contrast, apprenticeships have long been associated in the U.S. with construction and labor unions. These associations date from a labor shortage during the Depression that resulted in Congress passing the National Apprenticeship Act. This law formalized standards and gave the Labor Department the power to certify training, which happened most often in manual labor occupations. Unions provided this service, controlling opportunities for apprenticeships tightly and passing them down from one generation to the next.

In the decades following World War II, the numbers and types of registered programs increased to include fields such as firefighter and medical technician. Apprenticeships never caught on, though, and they were relegated to the position of a second-class career track as college enrollment swelled in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, this relegation mirrors the decrease in labor union influence and membership.

A Slow But Steady Comeback

Currently, there are 21,000 programs with roughly 500,000 apprentices listed on the Department of Labor's registry. Although this sounds impressive, it accounts for only 1.5 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. and falls far short of demand. Even so, participation has risen by 35 percent, and the number of programs has increased by 11 percent since 2013.

The comeback of the apprenticeship is due in part to bipartisan support from lawmakers. Washington has allocated $265 million over the past two years to grow programs. Thomas E. Perez, President Obama's secretary of labor, was a strong advocate of apprenticeships and tried to rebrand them to appeal to educators and parents alike. During his time as secretary, the department developed a partnership between registered community colleges and sponsors allowing on-the-job training to count as academic credit for a degree.

"Apprenticeship is the other college, except without the debt," said Perez, whose goal was to double their number by 2018. Given the new president's experience with construction, advocates remain hopeful that the trend will continue to grow.

Though the construction trades still dominate, other types of occupations offering apprenticeships are now offering them for jobs like pharmacy technician, I.T. project manager, and insurance adjuster. Insurance and financial services company Aon announced a program in Chicago last month through which high school graduates will receive training in account management, human resources, financial analysis, and information technology while also earning an associate's degree from either Harold Washington College or Harper College.

John Hickenlooper, governor of Colorado, hopes to put apprenticeships in high schools throughout his state. Backed by $9.5 million it received from Bloomberg Philanthropies and JPMorgan Chase, the state will start to offer hands-on training in financial services, information technology, and healthcare—as well as manufacturing—beginning in high school. The goal is for the program to be available to 20,000 students at every academic and income level within the next 10 years.

"The Silver Bullet"

"Apprenticeships can start with a job and end with a Ph.D.," said Noel Ginsburg, who heads up the program and is both president and founder of Denver's Intertech Plastics. The initiative was inspired by a 2015 trip to Switzerland that he and dozens of politicians and business and education leaders made. Though German apprenticeships are often considered the best model, Ginsburg preferred the approach taken by the Swiss because it involves a wider range of fields.

Compulsory education in Switzerland ends after ninth grade. At that time, students can choose between taking an academic or a vocational path. Twenty to 30 percent choose the academic path, which focuses on the few professions requiring a university education, such as medicine and law. Almost 70 percent decide on the vocational track, which has programs for around 230 occupations.

Starting in the 10th grade, students rotate among a series of employers, industry organizations, and school to receive three to four years of training and mentorship. Learning is hands-on and they are paid. The unemployment rate for the young in Switzerland is the lowest in Europe, and it is roughly one-fourth of the U.S. 's rate.

In contrast, most students in the U.S. choose between college and a dead end. It seems that the college-for-all movement has closed off career options rather than opening them up. It is necessary to expand and legitimize educational pathways for working-class people who feel left out in the current economy to be able to get meaningful jobs. In the process, we have to redefine and expand what we mean by "higher education."

"The silver bullet comes by adding more training opportunities during and after high school," said Dr. Carnevale. "And whatever you do with training, you need to call it college. You want to make people feel good about the path they choose."