The Many Virtues and Similarities of Transatlantic Plumbing

The British government announced last week that it would spend 170 million pounds (the equivalent of about $213 million) developing a series of “Institutes of Technology” intended as “credible alternative[s]” to well-worn routes many young people take to more academically oriented universities.  As reported by Times Higher Education, the new Institutes are part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s industrial policy, in which “technical education will get a radical shake-up so as to ‘level the playing field’ for those who do not go to university.”

The Prime Minister was “expected” to say that the strategy would be a “critical part of the plan for Britain” once the country departs the European Union.  More specifically, May reportedly saw it as “unwise to force less academic pupils into the straitjacket of university, leaving them drowning in debt for the sake of a poor degree” – particularly, she added, when we have a chronic shortage of British plumbers and engineers.”

For a range of reasons, Center of the American Experiment won’t be recommending that either Minnesota or the United States more generally create the kinds of institutions the Brits seem poised to pursue.  One of those reasons, a quite large one, is that this state and nation already have great numbers of such places, variously called community colleges, technical colleges and the like – as in Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, Northwest Technical College in Bemidji, Riverland Community College in Austin, Alexandria Technical and Community College in Alex, and Minneapolis Community and Technical College down the block among many other invaluable such schools around the state and nation.  This is not to say, though, that my colleagues and I don’t resonate when we hear calls for more plumbers, regardless of the side of the Atlantic from which they flood forth.  We very much do.

As you may know, American Experiment is in the early stages of a multi-year project aimed at helping more young people win good-paying jobs and solid middle-class careers without four-year degrees.  We start from the belief that American colleges and universities are the envy of the world, and nothing we ever will say or write will seek to dissuade anyone from attending one if that is their dream and plan.

But we also know many young men and women really don’t want to spend a minimum of four years in college, yet nevertheless enroll, believing that doing so is their only avenue to occupational success – when it definitely is not.  Such quests regularly end sadly, with students not only dropping out, but routinely in sizable debt, too.

How to overcome the unhealthy cultural bias that just about every young American ought to go to college and come out around four years later with a four-year degree?  What educational alternatives are far better routes for countless young men and women?   And far from incidentally, what kinds of educational options – starting with apprenticeships and certificate programs in community colleges – increase the chances that employers can find enough employees with first-tier technical skills so their businesses can thrive and remain in Minnesota?

In doing research for this still-to-be officially-launched project, I’ve met since late September with about 40 leaders in education, business, government and other fields seeking their advice.  American Experiment President John Hinderaker and Senior Fellow Kathy Kersten have met with dozens of men and women as well.  Without exaggerating in the least, it’s accurate to say I have never been involved in any project in which enthusiasm is as across-the-board high as this one.  Here are snippets of notes I’ve taken over the last four-plus months.

  • After I emphasized that the project will have nothing whatsoever to do with tracking, an African American leader agreed that we need to make that fact clear to everyone, especially low-income and people of color.   He also insightfully said, “people hear the words but feel the heart.”
  • A college educator said that for every one job generated at the Ph.D. level, two are generated at the four-year level, and seven are generated at the two-year level.
  • A union leader said that unions themselves pick up 95 percent or more of the costs of apprenticeships in the construction industry.
  • In regards to manufacturing he said that parents don’t want “their kids coming home greasy,” but we agreed that is usually not the case when it comes to modern manufacturing.  This led me to recall a social scientist friend saying the overwhelming majority of college students have never set foot on a modern factory floor.
  • Another leader in construction, this time a contractor, talked of how many efforts are underway in Minnesota to get young people interested in the field, albeit with inadequate success so far.  He also spoke of how the industry is becoming much more technologically advanced, leading to questions about whether enough young men and women have sufficient math and other STEM skills.
  • That lack, however, did not stop either one of us from waxing nearly poetically about the enormous satisfaction inherent in building great buildings, stadiums and other beautiful places.  This is especially the case when driving by one of them with kids or grandkids in backseats and saying, “I built that.”
  • One observer pointed out how technology-related courses in two-year schools can be more rigorous than courses in the liberal arts in four-year institutions.  No question about that.
  • Another observer said that a third (or perhaps more) of the students at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis (formerly known as Dunwoody Institute) already have four-year degrees – but have enrolled there because they have been unsuccessful in the job market.  They assume, generally correctly, they’ll be more employable once they acquire the kind of skills taught at Dunwoody.
  • Several people with whom I’ve met wisely offered caveats such as, what will happen (what’s happening right now?) when men and women who choose to work at outdoor job sites instead of indoor offices reach 55 or 60 and are physically incapable of doing physically demanding jobs any longer?   What will happen especially if their pension funds erode or worse?  Good questions which we must contend with honestly.
  • And when it comes to the exorbitant tuition and other costs of many four-year colleges, one of the people I met with contended that parents were too often “robbing from their retirement savings” to send their kids there.  This is not a smart idea, he concluded.

To which I immediately agreed.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.  He routinely calls on the services of well-paid plumbers.