Last year’s presidential election exposed a much-discussed rift in the electorate along education lines. President Trump won three previously blue states—Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—by appealing in part to working-class communities with a largely non-college-educated population left behind in an information economy that rewards workers with a college degree.
Despite Trump’s campaign promises to revive the industrial North and Midwest by bringing back manufacturing jobs lost to trade, it’s highly unlikely he can deliver on that pledge. Of the factory jobs that disappeared since 2000, nearly nine in ten were lost to machines, not to workers in other countries.
There are still plenty of factory jobs available, however. Some 80 percent of U.S. manufacturers report they have a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled and highly skilled production positions. The problem is only likely to get worse in coming years as a generation of blue-collar workers reach retirement. Nearly 2 million manufacturing jobs are expected to go unfilled due to a shortage of skilled labor.
While many of those retiring workers never went to college, just having a high school diploma will no longer cut it for these jobs in the future. One thing Trump can do: develop more pathways into jobs that encourage high school graduates to pursue additional education and vocational training, without sending everyone off to college in hopes they’ll find their way to a bachelor’s degree and then a career.
“A lot of Americans need a job, not an acceptance to college,” said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills with the education policy program at New America. “But when you talk to policymakers in Washington, they don’t have experience with vocational education because they didn’t do it, and their children didn’t either.”
Instead of waiting for Washington, employers are beginning to act. Take Frito-Lay, the snack-food maker. Many of its factory jobs have been lost to automation. But as often happens with technological advances, the introduction of new machinery actually created new jobs.
“As we continued to automate our facilities, we found that the talent pool to maintain machines wasn’t available,” Gregg Roden, senior vice president of supply chain at Frito-Lay told me.
At its plant south of Macon, Ga., the company is partnering with a local community college and nearby technical academy to provide courses to high school juniors and seniors in engineering and technical skills and give them hands-on experience in hydraulics, machine alignment, electricity and mechanical fundamentals.
The courses will award credits to the students and are designed to prepare them for an apprenticeship program at Frito Lay. That apprenticeship will give them further training in industrial maintenance while they complete an associate’s degree at Central Georgia Technical College.
“We’re trying to capture the hearts and minds of students and give them visibility to jobs in their own community by opening up access to our curriculum,” Roden said.
One unintended consequence of the standards movement in middle and high schools is that the packed curriculum and testing schedule now consumes time once dedicated to career exploration. As a result, many students leave high school without a clear idea of jobs available to them. So they pick careers based on what seems familiar, not necessarily what might inspire them. If their neighbors or parents or friends’ parents are doctors, lawyers and teachers, they are likely to choose one of those paths as well.
With many occupations concentrated in certain regions— tech jobs, for example, along the coasts— large swaths of students have no exposure to careers that might interest them. Then when students sift through job openings as seniors in college, many titles sound as if written in a foreign language. They often lack specific skills needed to get those jobs.
Steering more students into technical education in high school is not the either-or proposition that so many educators make it out to be. It doesn’t mean that those students will skip college. Indeed, the experience of Frito Lay and other manufacturers is that they don’t hire workers on the factory floor anymore with just a high school diploma.
“Our facilities require someone to operate in different situations. It’s a fast-paced environment, a corporate environment,” Roden said. “You absolutely need to perform admirably in high school, but you also need additional education and training afterwards.”
In other words, some sort of college. Maybe not a four-year degree, but at least a two-year degree or certificate. By giving high school students more exposure to jobs, and perhaps steering more of them into other pathways than just the one that leads them directly to a four-year college without a plan, we can help fill the jobs that are coming available and give more people access to fulfilling careers.