Skilled manufacturing could give more Americans the opportunity to climb into the middle class, according to a University of Virginia commission led by two former governors.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh talked about the findings of a commission they co-chaired at a taping of the public television program “American Forum,” hosted by journalist and author Douglas A. Blackmon.
Most of the ideas floated by Barbour, a Republican, and Bayh, a Democrat who also served two terms as a U.S. senator, focused on improving vocational education and training needed for advanced manufacturing.
The commission suggested, among other things, bringing vocational training back to high schools and special loans for small manufacturers looking to retrain their workers. More than anything, though, Barbour said parents and educators need to get rid of the stigma attached to skilled trades.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been telling young people for generations [that] if you don’t go to college, there’s something wrong with you,” Barbour said. “That’s wrong.”
The commission’s report is part of the Howard P. Milstein Symposium: Ideas for a New American Century. The symposium, housed under UVa’s Miller Center, brings together scholars and policymakers for ideas to “rebuild the American Dream” by increasing class mobility and opportunities for Americans of all backgrounds.
The commission headed by Barbour and Bayh focused on manufacturing. Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, manufacturing executives and academics were among the commission members.
Most experts see a shortage of workers qualified to fill manufacturing positions, which involve the use of increasingly complicated machinery. A 2012 study on the problem from the Boston Consulting Group estimates a shortage of between 80,000 and 100,000 skilled workers.
“It used to be that you could drop out of high school and start work at a manufacturing plant,” Bayh said. “Today, you get paid for what you know.”
Another problem facing small- and medium-sized manufacturers is the high cost of retraining workers. Since technology is constantly changing, workers often need to be retrained – something many smaller companies can’t afford.
The commission recommended Small Business Association loans with favorable terms to help pay for this retraining.
“Small businesses don’t have the capital for training,” Barbour said.
Barbour and Bayh also talked about “upside down” degree paths, similar to a program in Washington state. It allows students to spend their first two years learning technical skills, rather than taking the core curriculum usually required of freshman and sophomores — general English and math courses, for example.
After two years, students have an associate’s degree in some skilled trade. If they decide to return to school, they can apply those credits toward a four-year bachelor’s degree and spend the last two years taking core classes.
The former governors also said some of the skills people pick up in the military should go toward college credit, and institutions should consider giving credit for online courses.
Blackmon said many traditional colleges and universities may be hesitant to accept those credits.
“It seems like there’s some pretty entrenched resistance to this,” Blackmon said.
Bayh said those colleges will have no choice in the future. “They’re going to have to either be somewhat accommodating or the world and the marketplace will move on without them,” he said.
Barbour and Bayh said these programs should be handled mostly at the state level, making them more accessible and accountable to the people they’re supposed to serve. They also stressed the importance of keeping vocational schools and community colleges in constant communication with employers, to make sure training is completely up-to-date and students know where the jobs are.
“The two don’t communicate nearly enough and that’s a problem we’re trying to solve,” Bayh said.