Where Do Phones Come From? A Manufactured Fact of Life

The National Association of Manufacturers recently announced (July 9, 2019) “a member-driven campaign to raise at least $10 million for the newly established ‘Creators Wanted Fund.’” Among other things, the campaign aims to reduce the skills gap by 600,000 workers by 2025; increase the number of students in technical and vocational schools by 25 percent; and increase from 27 percent to 50 percent “the number of parents who would encourage their children to pursue a career in modern manufacturing.”

What might it take for the latter, in particular, to happen?

Until not long ago, Mike McGee was the System Director for Education-Industry Partnerships for Minnesota State.  For good reasons, I wound up quoting him more than most in a book of mine whose paperback version will be released on July 30: Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees.  (Yes, that’s an unadulterated pitch.)  I asked Mike what do we need to do to persuade more young people and their parents that there are ways to have good lives without four-year degrees?

“We need,” he said, “to take advantage of applied experience. Applied learning is powerful. The images. The sounds. The chance to see and touch and operate. To see raw materials going in and finished products coming out. Tours, job-shadowing, informational interviews, and internships. Maybe apprenticeships later, but certainly internships while students are still in high school, whether over summers or released time during the school year. Work-based learning is the Holy Grail of getting folks oriented to careers they had no idea existed.”

Similarly, “If we could only get parents, I mean mainstream city and suburban parents, to better understand the skilled and high-tech nature of career and technical education and the jobs we do. The goods produced, and the systems installed and maintained. We’d have better appreciation for technical education.

“I was in a classroom,” he went on, “talking about manufacturing and held up my phone. I asked, ‘Where do these come from?’ Someone said the phone store, and I said, ‘Before that?’ Someone else said China, and I said, ‘Before that, too.’ You would have thought I had asked, ‘How many miles to Mars?’ There was stone silence in the room.

“I said raw materials, but what I really wanted to talk about was that everything we touch is manufactured. It was built. It didn’t just become. Someone builds these things. The computers in your hands are among the most sophisticated things humans have ever developed. They’re the result of engineering, and obviously there’s a lot of four-year and post-graduate work in them. A lot of Nobel Prize work in them.  But when you get right down to it [this is the moral of story], the people who make these systems work, who maintain them, and allow us to produce these goods are primarily at the technician level.”

Lindsay Benjamin, a senior systems analyst, reinforced the point when he spoke of the need, not for computer scientists, but “technologists who actually know how to operate our various systems.”

How audacious are NAM’s goals, especially that of nearly doubling the percentage of American parents in the next half-dozen years who would encourage their kids to pursue careers in (specifically modern) manufacturing?  “Quite” is the severely understated answer, especially since there is little in our recent past or current air to suggest optimism.  The bias for four-year degrees, and against anything less, as my American Experiment colleagues and I have been writing about, is that powerful.

Then, again, I don’t recall ever hearing of a trade group committing $10 million to a coordinated, multi-year effort to turn around deeply held dispositions about vital jobs and careers.