During my lifetime, the world has changed in many ways. Vocational education is one of them. When I was in high school, classes in wood shop, auto shop, home economics and even typing were available. Not everyone wanted to go to college, in fact a lot of people just wanted to get a good job and make some money. After all, you can go to college any time. An interesting part of this equation is that college, at that time, was ridiculously cheap compared compared to the costs today.
It got me thinking about vocational education and relatively cost effective advanced degrees that train people for specific careers. You could view some of the options in that second category as high end vocational schools.
When I finished high school, I wanted to design cars. A very specialized occupation, with an extremely limited number of colleges able to provide the kind specialized training needed if you wanted to pursue that career. My choice was the Art Center School in Los Angeles, which offered a Bachelors degree in Industrial Design, with a focus on automotive design.
A bigger issue, one that I didn’t think about until much later, was that the whole program, fancy degree and all, was just a big vocational school. They train you to do a specific job. As a student, you think that since you’re paying enormous amounts of money for tuition, you must be a valuable customer. Not so. The real customer was the giant industrial companies that need designers. The tuition costs did not cover the school’s expenses, not even close. A substantial part of the budget came from “donations.” The big donors, the stakeholders, were the companies that hired their graduates.
It makes sense, the dozen or so companies that actually hire automotive designers want someone who can hit the ground running, start producing useful ideas as quickly as possible. But that was decades ago. The educational system does not work that way now.
Let’s shift forward several decades. I’ve moved from Industrial Design, and after some additional self education find myself working for Microsoft. My job at the time was in Developer Support, basically helping programmers write code or troubleshoot problems with existing code running on the Windows Platform. One of the cool things I got to do was recruiting. Microsoft didn’t have “Recruiter” as a job title. They let the people who currently held those positions, select the people who they thought could do the job in the future.
The first stage in the process was the Campus Interview. That was a 50 minute filter interview to select people qualified enough to be flown to a Microsoft site, and do the full day, multiple interviewer stage that resulted in a ‘hire’ or ‘no hire’ decision. As a campus recruiter, you were judged on how many worthwhile candidates you picked. Fly back a bunch of losers, you were soon replaced.
I went to several US Universities that had good Computer Science programs. And keep in mind that Microsoft had three major US sites, each with a dozen or people who functioned as part time as recruiters.
Typically I would interview about 9 or 10 students each day. About 10% were flown to Microsoft for the ‘big’ interview. It’s also worth noting that more than half of that 10% were not American born. It seems that Pakistan, India, China and Russia were over represented in the computer science programs at many universities. During those boom years Microsoft was never able to fill all the positions available. To their credit, they refused to lower the bar and accept marginal candidates.
So how does that relate to my graduating class at a high end vocational school decades earlier? Admittedly, my chosen career was a super specialized field that required both technical and creative skills. In many respects, not all that different from the software code writer skill set today. In my graduating class, 100% of us had multiple job offers. That doesn’t seem to be the case now.
A few weeks ago I watched Tim Cook, the current CEO of Apple, being interviewed on 60 minutes. It was for the most part a puff piece about how wonderful Apple is. I thought pretty much everyone on the planet was aware that Apple has been creating amazing products for a long time now. At one point, Mr Cook was asked about why so much of Apple’s production was outsourced to China. Here’s part of this discussion.
Charlie Rose: So if it’s not wages, what is it?
Tim Cook: It’s skill.
Charlie Rose: Skill?
Tim Cook: It’s skill. It’s that Chi–
Charlie Rose: They have more skills than American workers? They have more skills than–
Tim Cook: Now– now, hold on.
Charlie Rose: –German workers?
Tim Cook: Yeah, let me– let me– let me clear, China put an enormous focus on manufacturing. In what we would call, you and I would call vocational kind of skills. The U.S., over time, began to stop having as many vocational kind of skills. I mean, you can take every tool and die maker in the United States and probably put them in a room that we’re currently sitting in. In China, you would have to have multiple football fields.
Charlie Rose: Because they’ve taught those skills in their schools? Tim Cook: It’s because it was a focus of them– it’s a focus of their educational system. And so that is the reality.60 Minutes
In another part of the 60 Minutes interview they were talking about the new Apple Campus being built, and the remarkable curved glass walls, which were imported from Germany. Think about it, the last thing any architect or designer wants to do is import windows from Germany. It’s ridiculously expensive. But if you want spectacular windows, you have to talk to the Germans.
The reason is complex, we don’t have the skill set, the machine tool makers or the designers of those tools. It’s not about cheap wages, I can guarantee that Germany is not the first option if you’re looking to get anything designed or manufactured on the cheap. We’ve not only outsourced cheap labor, we’ve outsourced highly skilled jobs.
We like to imagine that the Japanese, the Chinese and the Germans somehow “took” all those skilled trades away from us. They could have never done that by themselves, America had to help. As a country we had to make a decision not to compete. We had to elect politicians who did not have that focus Tim Cook was talking about. Now, our own companies outsource their products to countries that did focus on developing the design and manufacturing skill set. Countries with great vocational education programs.
The bottom line is that America gave away major industries. The countries that took them had that focus, they had a plan. The US still does not have a plan, not for education, and not for the economy. Our economy is not going to get better until we have a plan. The really sad part is that we don’t even have a plan to develop a plan.