The Laborers Are Few

The Laborers are Few
Neighbors from Vieques recently visited us in Truro for a few days. To treat them to a real Cape Cod experience, we took them to – where else? -- Truro Vineyards. Together we helped harvest autumn’s crop of 2014 cabernet and pinot grapes.

Like my wife and I, they’re not accustomed to the sort of strenuous toil involved in stooping, plucking, filling and lugging.

Yes, there were our feeble attempts at humor: “No wonder Americans don’t want to do this kind of work.”

This stopped me cold. After all, didn’t we boycott table grapes in the Sixties to support Caesar Chavez in his fight to win social justice for migrant field workers? Didn’t we gain from him some understanding of the dignity of work?

I was reminded of the vocational training and apprenticeship programs being offered by big corporate names such as Siemens. Rooted in Germany’s long heritage of apprenticeships, these are noteworthy vocational alternatives for students who – instead of college -- want or need to begin earning a living and might enjoy the hands-on work of a high-technology manufacturing facility.

Siemens, for example, has an apprenticeship program that’s well over a century old. Following the German custom, it sponsors one of the largest school-to-career programs in America -- combining practical and classroom training in partnership with high schools, technical schools and community colleges.

When Siemens launched an apprenticeship program in Silicon Valley several years ago, I wrote a speech for then-CEO Dr. Heinrich von Pierer in which he said, “We hope to not only equip young people against poverty, social conflict and inequality, but also to enable them to prosper in a world of change. Because with the great change taking place in today’s high-technology environment, it is the learners who will inherit the future.”

Apprenticeship programs like the one Siemens pioneers are designed to invigorate development of a hands-on, high-tech workforce, thereby fueling America’s global competitiveness.

According to the Manufacturing Institute, the manufacturing base helps drive one in seven private-sector jobs in the U. S. and accounts for about 70% of private sector research and development.

Eric A. Spiegel is the president and CEO of Siemens USA and serves on the President’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership 2.0 Steering Committee.

“Manufacturing jobs have a branding problem,” he said after last month’s meeting of the committee. “There is an ongoing need to ensure young people understand that choosing a challenging career in advanced manufacturing is a pathway to a successful career.”

We've done a disservice to youth by suggesting that a college degree is the single path to success. The reality is eye-opening. A National Education Association study two years ago examined the U.S. labor force and students’ academic and career paths. It found:

  • Three of ten do not graduate from high school
  • Half of high school students do not go to college
  • Close to half of college students do not complete a Bachelor’s degree within six years
  • Three-fourths of our labor force do not have a Bachelor’s degree
  • Only one of four workers holds a high-skill job

In a recent US News & World Report story, James Stone III, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Louisville, pointed out that middle-school students in Germany take tests and move on to either apprenticeships or university preparation.

“The system works extraordinarily well,” he says. “They have one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the industrialized world, and going through an apprenticeship in no way prevents one from moving on to college.”

No company can guarantee a person a lifetime job. But it can bestow employability skills for a lifetime.

In my next blog, “Psychogeography

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