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Good jobs are there, but without the right skills they just go begging

Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the Twenty-First Century

By Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston

Metropolitan Books

257 pages, $28

By Peter Simon

Visiting high-quality vocational education classrooms was one of my most encouraging experiences as a former education reporter.

Students were eager, engaged and directed, a far cry from the detachment many of them felt in their previous academic high schools. Teachers were former tradesmen with real-world experience and the contacts to help students secure internships and even full-time work. Equipment and facilities were up-to-date.

Those situations, unfortunately, are the exception and not the rule. Schools and industry, which could both benefit greatly from solid technical education initiatives, are failing to connect. Good jobs go unfilled while the unemployment rate for young people– especially in inner-cities and rural areas– is sky high.

Manufacturing jobs in the U.S. declined by about 35 percent since 1980, yet 600,000 jobs – or 5 percent of the remaining total – are unfilled. That dilemma threatens to grow, since vocational positions – already hard to fill – are expected to account for half the new jobs created nationally between 2012 and 2022.

As things now stand, the authors conclude, there will not be nearly enough qualified young workers to fill them. Faced with that prospect, schools, business, labor and government must mobilize like they did during the industrial build-up of World War II, writes Newman, the provost and a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Winston, a senior fellow in investigative journalism at Brandeis University.

“We have another war on our hands now; but it is quiet, insidious and has been slow-moving to the point where we are unwilling to recognize its devastating consequences for productivity, mobility and national prosperity,” they write.

Buffalo is clearly a battleground in that war. Business owners have been telling school officials for years that they have good “middle-skill” jobs available but not enough qualified candidates to fill them. Those jobs generally require some education or training after high school, but not a four-year college degree. They include paralegals, electricians, dental hygienists, bus drivers, automotive technicians, carpenters, welders and plumbers.

That shortage of qualified job-seekers becomes even more worrisome – and potentially more rewarding – with the employment opportunities being created by new development at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and other growth areas in the city. Taking notice, the Buffalo Board of Education plans to create a second campus for the Emerson School of Hospitality, which would open up Emerson’s highly popular culinary arts program to more students.

Newman and Winston outline far more ambitious efforts in other cities, but say they, too, fall far short of the need. It is critical, they add, for vocational schools “to be closely aligned with the job market and flexible enough to jettison obsolete programs and create new ones.”

But expanding and improving vocational education programs faces major hurdles. Critics contend that premature enrollment in vocational schools limits lower-income students to less prestigious jobs; opens the door to businesses gaining too much clout in instructional methods and standards, and that it is prohibitively expensive to keep vocational education classrooms stocked with ever-changing technology.

“From their perspective, students should be free to sculpt themselves and schools should not become the handmaidens of industry,” write Newman and Winston. “Our ambivalence toward blue-collar work, our post-war obsession with white-collar occupations, the national religion of upward mobility and – it must be said – a degree of selfishness on the part of the middle and upper middle class when it comes to investing in the future of other people’s children all play an important role.”

Newman and Wilson emphasize that vocational education is not a requirement, but a healthy option for a wide range of students.

“If the choice is between a general high school that provides little focus and one that is strongly directed toward the world of work, which is better for the average student?” they write.

The book is timely and informative, but probably too detailed and nuanced for many readers. But its message should be heeded.

Peter Simon was a longtime education reporter for The Buffalo News.