Sunday, May 6, 2012

Is the Education We Want, the Education We Need?

German apprentice steelmaker
My Dad never went to college. He was about four months into a six month hitch in the Army on December 7, 1941 -- that day of infamy. When he returned from the war four years later, one thing led to another and… well, he never went to college.

Perhaps for that reason, I was programmed to go to college from an age earlier than I can remember. It was a matter of faith. I never questioned it -- never felt the need to. So, it seems odd to me that some people are questioning the value of a college degree.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article (Education Slowdown Threatens U.S. ) summarizing the studies of two Harvard economists. Professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have calculated the average years of schooling for native born Americans since 1876. Today, the average 30 year old has only 8 months more education than their parents. This contrasts to 1980 when the gap was about 2 years. The Journal posits that this factoid does not bode well for our nation. After all, college grads have fared pretty well during this extended down turn with an unemployment rate of 4.2%, about half of the rate for those with only a High School diploma.

From the Wall Street Journal
The article included a graphic comparing the percentage of the US population that has attained a college degree to other countries. The US was 14th on a list that was led by S. Korea, Canada and Japan. What struck me, however, was that Germany – that’s right, Germany – was 25th on the list.

We all know about Germany, right? It is the economic engine of Europe. It is highly industrialized, produces great manufactured products and runs a trade surplus of about 15 Billion Euros per year. So, if a college degree is so important, how does Germany do it?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in Germany’s apprenticeship program. The tradition of apprenticeship in Europe goes back to the Middle Ages. It is embedded in German society, driven by industry demand and put to good use by high tech manufacturers. The “dual education” system combines on the job training with classroom vocational instruction. Young Germans can choose among 356 occupations including medical assistant, industrial management or optician. It is also a government program.

In this country, ‘A’ students go to Harvard, MIT or Stanford if they can afford it. If not, they may have the opportunity to attend great public universities like the University of Michigan, Indiana University or the University of California at Berkeley.

But, what about the ‘B’ students and ‘C’ students? Many are getting business degrees at lesser schools. Is there value to that approach?

Early in my career, I worked at Citicorp and Goldman Sachs. We hired the best and brightest from the top business schools including those mentioned above. They were management trainees and were paid very well. Smaller businesses couldn’t compete with those compensation packages.

In a small company, you need people with experience, not trainees. So, who will hire the ‘B’ and ‘C’ students? What value is there in a business school degree from No Name University?

Here in Florida, the Dean of the business school at Nova Southeastern University, Dr. Michael Fields, created an innovative program – a Sales Institute -- requiring every business school student to attend at least four courses in sales and sales management. Dr. Fields met resistance from his most important constituents – the faculty and the students.

However, there was one group that loved the program – business owners. The idea that they might be able to hire people who were ready to produce revenue was very appealing. Faculty and students don’t see the value in the less intellectual skill base of the sales profession. Employers see dollar signs.

But you don’t go for an MBA to end up as an apprentice. And, that was the perception of Nova’s program.

But, what’s wrong with apprenticeships? What if we had an education system that provided the real world skills that industry demands?

In Albany, NY, the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering was started with $1B provided by the state of NY and an additional $13B from industry. The college is educating Americans in nanotechnology used in the manufacture of computer chips and other miniaturized electronic devices. The college has created over 13,000 jobs in that rust belt city and promises to produce graduates with world class skills.

The US Department of Labor has created a program to support structured apprenticeships through the office of Education and Training. Reflecting the political reality of this country, the DOL uses funds that have been reallocated from other projects to support industry led efforts to create apprenticeships.

One example is the National Information Technology Apprenticeship System created by the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). NITAS took two years to develop and has a goal of training at least 7 million workers in the IT trades. The structure is noteworthy. The government sponsors the program but does not fully fund it, regulate it or make it mandatory. The industry set standards and participates voluntarily because it sees benefit in hiring workers who are more productive on Day One of employment.

The net is this. A better trained, more productive workforce will make it more attractive for free enterprise corporations to invest and create jobs in this country. These jobs will have higher wages than low skill service jobs. Higher wages increase demand for goods and services and grow the economy.

There has been much written about our broken public education system. And, indeed I agree with most of the criticisms. But, if you could fix the problem tomorrow for, say, all the third graders in America, we would still be 20 years away from feeling the economic impact. Apprenticeships can have an almost immediate impact and don’t require tax dollars to develop.

The ultimate question is whether initiatives that take us in this direction will encounter the same resistance that Dr. Fields encountered. Are Americans ready to have their children become apprentices rather than college grads?

Or, to put it another way, would my Dad have approved? Or, your Dad?


  1. Who cares what our Dad's wanted? The Question is "what does an education give you that you couldn't have if you didn't have one?". I'm a professor- so for me, its a profession --that I'm completely "in-love" with by the way. I think that the value of an education or training - because they both have the same value, they're just relevant in different industries - depends on the desire of the individual to enter a certain profession. I know someone who is "in-love" (there's that word again) with cars - he swears he couldn't live without his passion for cars. He's getting a management degree because he doesn't know what else to get. My question is "why aren't you learning how to be an auto mechanic or an engineer?

    So, my final comment is... find what you "love" and do the training (or education) required by the industry (and the customers) to fulfill your goals. Time is ticking ;-)

  2. Jeffery A Thomas • the best designer I know went through a type setting apprenticeship in Germany

  3. I rarely read blogs, if ever, except for yours. You are a deep dude !! I really appreciate the thought you put into your positions and how you are rooted in logic (God knows that is rare today). Your blog should be a column in a publication – and you should certainly consider sending them in as op-ed pieces. Anyhow, just a word from your fan club. Keep up the good work.

  4. Robert Spencer • Apprenticeships are great. Isn't that what internships and residency for doctors is all about. But lets not do anything so practical for others.

  5. Lynne Johnson • I work with a number of employers who are opting for apprenticeships rather than candidates with FE/HE qualifications. The value for them is that they are able to link young energy with a seasoned professional. For the young person the value is often measured in a different way, with earning potential from day 1 being at the top of the list, and being able to get their hands dirty alongside further education (as opposed to further education on its own) being a close 2nd. Having said that, I see some very poor examples of apprenticeships, that amount to no more than an additional revenue stream with very little learning/experience being imparted. As with most routes, some have value, others don't, its the way its managed that makes the difference.

  6. Daniel Latch • Very nice post, John. My Dad had a second grade education but that didn't make him ignorant, just not scholarly. I could explain a math practice to him once and he could do any related problem in his head and come up with the right answer, right through calculus and trig. Engineers worked for him in the construction industry. When he put pencil to paper he just doodled but he always arrived at the right answer and knew when his engineers were wrong on a calculation

    The points you make about Germany were brought to my attention thirty years ago while working with NATO. It was inconceivable to me that some apprenticeships last twenty years. Then the MBA rush happened in this country and I was compelled to pen an article entitled 'Bizarro in the Executive Suite' for Forbes magazine. If you know Superman lore, you get what I mean - twisted logic, bad decisions, upside down thinking.

  7. @Daniel. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. My Dad was the same way. He was usually the quickest if not the only guy in the room who got the answer to any math problem. Here's a puzzle for you: If one and a half squirrels can eat one and a half nuts in one and a half minutes, how many nuts can 9 squirrels eat in 9 minutes?

    Dad got the right answer in less than a second after the questioner finished. It's amazing how many people get it wrong.

  8. Zachary Sochacki • Science and math is hard. Culturally, Europeans and Americans in college take the path of least resistance. Therefore, fewer people take difficult math and science courses.

    Almost done reading "Outliers". The author talks about the distinct advantage that certain Asian cultures have in math. Without going into detail, he opines that the reason is that their culture is such that it encourages...even lauds...hard work and persistence, both of which are needed to train the mind to solve complex problems. (In fact, he makes the connection to the fact that growing rice requires diligence and a lot of hard work, and this shaped the way that these cultures approach life...they put the time in to get the job done.)

    We're lazy and soft both here in the States and in Europe. And we're paying for it.

  9. @Zach. I agree with your (partial) description of the problem. In my post, I am attempting to outline a (partial) solution. Today's grads are concerned about their future. (They are subjected to the same media as we are.) Imagine, if you will, a corporate partnership with educational institutions that supports programs that will better align skills with needs of the market.

  10. My dad was a young genius and finished high school at age 16. He entered the U. of Michigan and promptly flunked out. He was ready intellectually, but not mature enough for college. He never did get a college degree. Decades later, as a successful journalist and enterpreneur, he taught community journalism as an adjunct assistant or associate college professor in the SUNY system!

    The US public education system needs to stop being so disrespectful to students who will enter the workforce directly from high school. Most of the so-called vocational programs are a joke. The emphasis is on making all graduates "college-ready," when "job-ready" is a better alternative for many.

    My county's public school system, one of the worst in Maryland, is improving its voc-ed program somewhat. It seeks to prepare students to obtain entry-level certification before graduation. However, it still insists that these students be college-ready, requiring college prep courses irrelevant to the careers the students aspire to enter.

    I'd like to see two things: specially designed math and science courses with career-appropriate problems, questions, etc.; and a 5-year cooperative (work/study/apprenticeship) option aimed at journeyman certificatoin.
    Posted by Dave Cahn

  11. Great comment, Dave. I also think we need to find a way to get boys back on track. There is mounting evidence that the system represses their success.