Not every kid needs to go to college. Vocational high schools are not just for losers. Voc ed is not about kids making birdhouses. Today’s students will turn ideas into digital CAD designs, then translate the data into computer numerical control programs that transform blocks of metal into beautiful shining objects. These kids will compete in robotics contests. They will diagnose and repair automobiles run by little electronic devices with more computing power than a 25-year-old IBM mainframe.
North Carolina Governor Mike Easley can tell you about the new manufacturing plants coming to his state because of the skilled technicians its educational system is producing. These aren’t low-wage jobs in the dark, dangerous and dirty factories parents imagine when they think of their kid’s future. Companies like Boeing, Medtronic and Toyota, along with their suppliers are already crying out for the talent to fill open positions. As baby boomers leave the workforce, the need for technical workers will reach crisis proportion.
Community colleges are fast becoming some of the most important educational institutions around. They routinely collaborate with local employers and economic development agencies to equip students with the experience in problem-solving, teamwork and manufacturing process knowledge to keep these factories running.
In York County, SC, students at a new community college campus will be making full size physical models from the same kind of CAD data the machinists started with, except these will be made of paper and goop with 3D printing machines that are nothing short of magical. The company that produces the machines is relocating its headquarters from California to South Carolina, sharing the cost of educating these young people. It desperately needs a supply of workers who can understand the process and support the equipment that’s rapidly being acquired by forward-looking companies.
The beautiful contours and perfect fit of the sheet metal on today’s automobiles depend on the high-precision complex dies that withstand tons of force applied by immense stamping machines, thousands and thousands of times. Managers where the dies are designed complain that new college-educated engineers may have never operated a stamping press, or even seen one. Thus they don’t fully understanding the processes and lack the ability to make the tooling without its needing costly rework.
Next time you fly in an airplane, ask yourself how important it is that the engines perform as expected. Would you like to take for granted that the semi behind you on the freeway has brakes that can stop it when needed? What about that pacemaker in your Dad’s chest? Not only do you want competent engineers designing these things, you want the people who build them to know what they’re doing.
I recently met some people from the maintenance, repair and overhaul facility at Anniston Army Depot. Vehicles damaged in Iraq – some nearly demolished – are sent there. This is the most advanced military equipment in the world. It is dismantled and examined. New parts are delivered immediately or fabricated on site using laser and waterjet cutters, high-speed machining centers and stamping equipment. This is without tying up taxpayer money in big inventories of just-in-case parts.
One of the Anniston guys told me he’d tried college but decided he wasn’t cut out for it. Yet he has skills and talent most of us could only wonder at.
Go into a factory and you’re likely to see spotless floors, well-organized groups of machines, whiteboards continuously updated by workers. Any heavy lifting will be ergonomically assisted. You’ll likely see a conference room where work teams are analyzing how work is done and continuously thinking of ways to do it better and cheaper. You’ll see people throughout the plant proud and confident that fruits of their labor are competitive in price and quality with those made anywhere in the world.
No, the job in the textile mill may have gone away, but today’s manufacturing jobs are plentiful, infinitely more interesting, and requiring skills you’d never find in a college classroom. Should every kid have the chance to go to college? Of course. But there are many more paths to success and achievement than most people preparing our students for the future can even imagine.