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Here's Why Filling Manufacturing Jobs Won't Be As Easy as Trump Claims

Jeff Selingo

Originally published by Jeff Selingo on LinkedIn: Here's Why Filling Manufacturing Jobs Won't Be As Easy as Trump Claims

Siemens, the German engineering company, has some 90 production facilities in the United States, making everything from trains to ventilation systems and employing thousands of people with solid middle-class paychecks.

But these manufacturing jobs are far from the blue-collar factory jobs of old that Donald Trump repeatedly promised during the presidential campaign to bring back to struggling towns in the Rust Belt. Not only do these factories require fewer people to run them, they also call for workers with high-tech skills and some sort of education after high school. And for Siemens and many other advanced manufacturers in the U.S., these modern factory jobs are often difficult to fill.

Earlier this decade, when Siemens announced the opening of a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, for instance, 10,000 people applied for just 800 jobs. Even with an applicant pool that large, the company couldn’t fill the jobs, Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens USA, told me when I met him earlier this year at a conference in Los Angeles.

“They didn’t have the tech skills we needed,” he said. “The skills required in those jobs has gone up dramatically. Everything is run by robots and lasers. Everything we do has software connected to it. We’re more of a software company than a hardware company.”

So along with several other manufacturing companies in the area, Siemens built its own workforce by importing the apprenticeship model from Germany. They recruited students as early as high school and paid them while they split their time between school and work. After three years, apprentices who successfully finished landed a full-time job with a starting salary of $55,000, an associate’s degree, and no student debt.

Apprenticeships were once a standard of the American workforce in the second half of the 20th century, when manufacturing accounted for a much bigger piece of the economy nationwide, and when those jobs required just a high-school diploma or less. That’s the nostalgia for a different era Trump usually revived in his rallies this past year.

The problem is that in the decades since, not only have the manufacturing jobs declined, so too have apprenticeships. Meanwhile, in elementary and secondary schools, vo-tech education came to be regarded as outdated and a distraction from the college track. Today, less than 5 percent of American youth train as apprentices, mostly in construction.

There is a revival underway, with the number of apprenticeships rising in the U.S. for the first time since the 2008 recession, led in part of the U.S. Department of Labor and global companies like Siemens.

When I visited the Charlotte-area companies with apprenticeships last year while reporting for my new book, I met students who easily had the academic credentials to get into a four-year college; they just wanted to work with their hands. One was Michael Shinn, who had plans to major in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University before he found out about the apprenticeship program. When I interviewed him he was firmly planted in a full-time job, even though his wife, who had recently earned her MBA, was finding the job market tough going.

For apprenticeships to catch on with the type of students that Siemens and other companies desperately need for their factory floors, we need a countervailing force to push back on the cultural norms that every high-school graduate go on to college, and preferably a four-year one.

Nearly everyone enrolled in apprenticeship programs that I met told me of teachers, counselors and parents along the way who discouraged them, warning them that skipping the four-year college route out of high school would turn out to be a mistake.

“Teachers and guidance counselors only talk about college as the way to a good life,” Shinn said. “College is not for everyone. I wish more of them could see what I do all day. I don’t have a mindless manufacturing job.”

Of course, the promises made by Trump on the campaign trail weren’t made to the likes of Michael Shinn but rather to the ranks of unemployed workers in their 40s and 50s with just a high-school degree. The growth of American apprenticeships won’t help that generation, plagued by increasing drug use and declining skills.

The jobs their counterparts held in previous generations requiring little education will never come back. At one point during the campaign, Trump visited my hometown in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., promising that the coal mining jobs mostly lost in the 1950s would return. Those jobs didn’t even exist when I was growing up 30 years ago. It’s a false promise to a region suffering from 6.2 percent unemployment, and with flat incomes since 2000.

What’s needed instead, to give some hope to the next generation, is The pathways that Siemens and others are building in places like Charlotte are just one example of what is required to fill the jobs of the new economy. Now we just need more K-12 schools, teachers, counselors, and parents to get on board.

Jeffrey Selingo is author of the new book, There Is Life After College. You can follow his writing here, on Twitter @jselingo, on Facebook, and sign up for free newsletters about the future of higher education at jeffselingo.com.

He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities.

Cross-posted from The Washington Post