I was put in mind of this by a story in today's Times about the shortage of high-level auto mechanics:
The shortfall of automotive technicians is not new, but as vehicles have grown more computerized and vocational programs have disappeared from high schools, the situation has become more urgent. No longer is the career path a matter of looking over the shoulder of a patient mentor. Advancing in the profession demands digital skills — a diagnostician who can solve puzzles without physical clues, like an engine bearing that knocks or an axle shaft that vibrates.That's 25,000 jobs just at car dealers, positions that pay up to $100,000 a year. The story identifies three obstacles to connecting young people with these jobs: first, the technical difficulty; I know a young man who is pursuing this career, and he has spent four years taking various programs at the local community college. Second, because young people don't grow up tinkering with engines the way they used to; modern cars are just too complex for the average tinkerer to get very far, and anyway those kids are all online playing Call of Duty instead of messing around in the garage. Third, because high schools don't teach this stuff any more.
John Fox, director of Fiat Chrysler’s Performance Institute, said that the automaker’s United States dealerships could absorb 5,000 technicians over the next two years, having hired 3,000 in the last two. Numbers of that scale give Mark Davis, automotive programs manager at Seminole State College in Sanford, Fla., confidence that his estimate of technician shortfalls — more than 25,000 at American dealerships over the coming five years — is actually quite conservative. Worse yet, there may not be enough training institutions in the country to keep up, Mr. Davis said.
That last is not entirely true, and there are still vocational schools and programs that teach mechanics and similar skills. But to the extent that it is true I find it infuriating. The weird push American educators have been making to send everyone to college is foolish and self-defeating. There just aren't enough jobs that require a college degree to make this economically sensible, and while I found college hugely enriching and mind-expanding that just doesn't seem to be true for many thousands of students. Instead of forcing all high school students to become "college ready" and funneling hundreds of thousands into colleges from which they will never graduate, we ought to be teaching them knowledge they can use. I do understand the class bias and so on involved here, and I understand which sorts of kids are slotted into vocational programs. But forcing young people to study academic subjects that interest them not at all strikes me as just indulging a different sort of bias, besides the vast waste of teaching skill and other resources.
An educational system should do a lot of things, but one of the key goals should be equipping people to support themselves and their families.
It occurs to me that there is also a geographical angle to this story. Most of those high-paying auto dealer jobs are in the places where lots of people drive expensive cars, that is, prosperous cities. So to get one of these jobs a small town kid has to learn all the skills and then quite likely move a long way from home, which another sort of obstacle.