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Editor's Note: Education investment should include the trades

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012 11:41 a.m. CDT

Unemployment is abysmally high. Students are graduating from college and moving back home unsure of their prospects.

And, according to the Manufacturing Institute, more than half a million manufacturing jobs are going unfilled because of the lack of a labor pool.

Interesting.

It’s well documented that over the decades, America has moved away from a manufacturing-based economy to a more service-based economy. Some people began to disdain jobs in the shops and the factories, touting the benefits of working in offices. And, as it became commonly accepted that a college degree and a job in an office were the goals that would bring students “the American dream,” less time and energy was spent in training them in the skilled trades. Shop classes became an easy cut for school boards looking for places to trim.

Now here we are with an estimated 600,000 jobs without enough skilled workers to fill them. Granted, those 600,000 jobs are something of a drop in the bucket compared to the nation’s 12.5 million unemployed, but it’s a start, and as tradesmen and skilled laborers age and retire, the field is expected to grow.

For those with an aptitude for it, manufacturing and the trades provide every bit as valid a ticket to the American dream as college and a desk job.

I was pleased to learn last week that Kishwaukee College received a $609,000 grant to help it grow its manufacturing training programs.

To be clear, I have nothing against college. I went to college and loved it. I also work in an office and am very happy here, too.

When I was in college, I spent a summer working as a supplemental employee on a factory floor. I have never before or since been so tired. And while I could understand a concept like torque on paper, standing before a half-assembled piece of heavy machinery with a wrench in my hand, I found myself completely out of my depth.

I also took shop when I was in school – it was required in those days – and passed by the skin of my teeth. As clumsy as I was with tools, I was lucky to keep all the skin on my hands. I do not have an aptitude for making things or fixing things. College and a desk job were a good fit for me. Had I attempted technical school, I would have failed miserably.

But I have had the good fortune to know many very intelligent people who were not cut out for a college classroom. Some of them tried and were unsuccessful; others were fortunate enough to seek out technical schools or apprenticeships right off the bat. In a meeting last week, a coworker said a person who would be really good at repairing a power station might fail miserably in a humanities class; it would make more sense to just teach them how to fix the power station.

In addressing a Congressional committee last year, Mike Rowe, host of the television series “Dirty Jobs,” said if we don’t invest in technical and trades education in this country, in 25 years a good plumber will cost as much per hour as a good psychiatrist. And we’ll need both.

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