Machine Design

The wrong school

It's hard to find an industry these days that isn't complaining about a dearth of skilled workers.

No matter where you look, there aren't enough people with vocational training to go around. Employers gripe that promising candidates for apprenticeships are few and far between. They often blame the public schools for not turning out the kind of workers they're looking for.

There is a good chance the problem isn't with public schools. The real difficulty is that too many kids who would be better off getting a vocational education instead go on to a four-year college.

Almost half those attending four-year colleges shouldn't be there if intellectual ability was the only consideration. This idea is from American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray. In 1994, Murray coauthored a controversial book on intelligence called The Bell Curve. More recently, he has pointed out that to do well in college, you need an IQ of at least 115 — an IQ of 100 is the halfway point between the upper and lower IQ distribution.

If you buy this argument, college makes sense for only about 15% of the population. Yet 45% of recent high-school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Murray figures this means high schoolers having IQs down to 104 are getting into college.

A lot of these students find their studies to be a ferocious struggle. But they would do fine in vocational training, he says, and probably would find it more interesting to boot. They end up in four-year schools simply because of community pressure: Society looks on vocational training as strictly second class.

That's unfortunate because there are only a few occupations where a four-year degree confers qualifications to enter a profession. So what good is a bachelor's degree in areas such as sociology, economics, history, or literature? For a relative few, it is a ticket to a graduate program that eventually leads to an occupation. But for the vast majority who stop after four years, a degree is simply evidence you're not a derelict. Employers value it not because it bestows job skills, but as a screen for factors such as perseverance and responsibility.

There is an irony here. People with vocational training increasingly end up better off than those with four-year degrees. Unlike a rising number of high-level jobs, the vocations that go begging are relatively recession-proof and can't be off-shored. Carpenters, pipe fitters, electricians, and nurses, to name a few, have no worries about wage compression because of globalization. The best of them do pretty well. Master craftsmen can make six figures. Even journeymen can expect an income that puts them solidly in the middle class.

So here we have the upside of globalization: It may make vocational training come into vogue as word spreads about the benefits of hands-on work. Eventually the social stigma attached to education outside of colleges will evaporate. Vocational training will be seen for what it is: A way to satisfy employers that is less costly than a four-year degree.

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