Technicians and ‘One of the Greatest Scientific Achievements of the 21st Century’

As part of Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree, I’ve reviewed a lot of reports in recent years that blur into each other about why and how we must do much better as a nation in one technical workforce area or some other.  This the case lest we seriously harm ourselves scientifically, technologically, and economically.  I intend no disrespect by acknowledging cloudiness, as the shortcomings cited each time are consequential and worrisome, and the scholars and officials addressing them distinguished.

I’m thinking of studies such as “The Skills Gaps in U.S. Manufacturing 2015 and Beyond,” by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte; “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine; and five years later, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited,” by the same three esteemed organizations.

Most recently released, in September, is “The Skilled Technical Workforce: Crafting America’s Science and Engineering Enterprise,” by the National Science Board.  As described by Diane L Souvaine, chair of the NSB, the report focuses on a “crucial but underappreciated part of the science and engineering enterprise: [T]he Skilled Technical Workforce (STW), the millions of men and women with STEM skills and knowledge who do not have a bachelor’s degree.”  And how, in fact, there may be 3.4 million unfilled technical jobs in the United States by 2022.

Such numbers and concerns align with those in various preceding reports.  But rather than delve again into such data, risking hazy eyes, here are two particularly interesting passages from “The Skilled Technical Workforce.”  The first is a quote from a retired NASA astronaut, Dr. Mae Jemison: “The Workforce that actually built the Space Shuttle were not four-year degree engineers, they were skilled technicians.  We need to make sure those jobs are represented.”

The second excerpt is even further out of this world.

One of the greatest scientific achievements of the 21st century – the detection of gravitational waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) – would not have been possible without the skill and dedication of hundreds of scientists, engineers, and skilled technical workers.  The National Science Board appreciated this firsthand at LIGO’s Livingston, Louisiana site.

There, the Board met David Barker, who describes himself as a skilled technical worker.  David works side-by-side with a team of operators and scientists to monitor and maintain the temperature in the 19,000 square foot laser vacuum equipment area within 2/10ths of a degree.  A temperature change of one-degree Fahrenheit would cause the laser to lose lock, forcing a shutdown and halting data collection.  David playfully notes that he tells people that he is “a famous air conditioning man.”  Without experienced and dedicated skilled technical workers like David, fundamental scientific breakthroughs that require complex technologies and facilities would not be possible.

It has been said that for every person with a Ph.D. doing technical work in a corporation or other setting, seven technically trained people with A.A. degrees are required in support.  Or, as a former official at Minnesota State perfectly put it when I was writing Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees:

Everything we touch [save for flora and fauna] is manufactured.  It was built.  It didn’t just become.   Someone builds these things.  The computers in your hands [cell phones] are among the most sophisticated things human have ever developed.  They’re the result of engineering, and obviously there’s a lot of four-year and postgraduate work in them.  A lot of Nobel Prize work in them.  But when you get right down to it, the people who make these systems work, who maintain them, and allow us to produce these goods are primarily at the technician level.

Almost 60 years ago, a sociologist named David Mechanic wrote about the “power of lower participants.”  Suffice it to say the highly skilled technicians the National Science Board says were need millions more of are anything but “lower.”