The Loss of Technical Skills in America

We all have that friend—the one who speaks four languages but can’t operate a coffee maker to save his life, or ours. Yet to some extent, we’re all that friend; we tap out 20-page papers on comparative literature, we debate the merits and shortcomings of various philosophical worldviews, and we excel in the biochemical laboratory, but if a faucet starts to leak, our only recourse is to call the plumber. We take our cars to the shop, we buy our vegetables at the grocery store, and when we need coffee, we order it from Starbucks. Our generation illustrates the outcome of an educational system that has abandoned technical skills. Not only has this system never taught us better than to undervalue and underpay those who do possess these vital skills, it has also bred a generation of highly-educated college graduates who lack the basic skills of self-reliance.

Technical schooling in America has traditionally come in two forms. In the first, students studied at specialized institutions known as trade schools or vocational schools, while in the second, they learned technical skills within the setting of their public high school. Vocational schools were particularly popular throughout the Vietnam War, when companies and firms hired directly out of feeder schools, providing competent instructors and up-to-date equipment. After the war, however, many school districts felt that these highly exclusive trade schools were unfair to the majority of students, and so discontinued the partnerships between specialized schools and companies. Instead, they made vocational training available in all public high schools, to any students who desired such an education.

In the 70s it became evident that U.S. students were falling behind the rest of the world academically, and so the country made it a mission to improve the academic programs in secondary schools. In 1984 the Perkins Act was signed into law in order to continue funding vocational education, but at a drastic reduction of its previous scope. This meant less funding and fewer hours for vocational training, which was re-named CTE, or Career and Technical Education, in the 2006 reauthorization of the Perkins Act. Students can still graduate with one or two CTE credits in fields like construction, agriculture, and manufacturing, but educational emphasis has been placed far more heavily on preparation for college. While this shift in educational focus significantly improved college enrollment rates for several decades up to the present, it also left a generation seriously lacking in any of the technical skills practical to life outside a cubicle, and with little regard for those who possess them.

The notion that vocational training is no longer necessary or desirable for the country’s youth has had detrimental effects both on the people who work with their heads and those who work with their hands. The majority of young people with a college education are utterly dependent on those without, and yet those without all too often find themselves living in poverty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the wage gap between high school and college graduates is steadily increasing, even as more and more young people seek jobs requiring a college degree.

This disparity of income reflects an ideological shift parallel to the growing emphasis on college education: the devaluing of manual and technical skills. In sacrificing vocational training for academic rigor, we as a country expressed our preferred values, the purely mental over the also manual, all the while forgetting how much patience, precision, and intelligence are required to perfect those skills we have come to dismiss.

Since the early 20th century, according to a 2000 report from the BLS, the number of people employed in manual or technical fields has fallen sharply, while the number in fields requiring higher education has risen. Teachers, lawyers, accountants, and computer specialists now dominate the workforce, with 23.3 percent of all employed people working in “professional” fields, and another 19.3 percent serving clerical roles, up from 4.4 percent and 5.2 percent in 1910, respectively. In contrast, craftsmen have fallen from 5.5 percent of the working population to less than 2 percent, and laborers (excluding farm and mine) declined by 64 percent, from 10.4 percent to only 3.7 percent of the population, likely as a result of the outsourcing of manufacturing and production to other countries.

These shifts away from manual and towards mental labor don’t just reveal a trend towards education for its own sake; they reveal a shift in attitude from vocational schooling as a popular and prestigious choice to a “second-rate” education. The choice to pursue a technical field now carries social stigmas that discourage young people from learning how to work with their hands.

It’s hard to know whether working wages fell because manual work was no longer considered valuable, or whether the work was undervalued and passed over because it was already underpaid. Either way, the choice to emphasize knowledge over skills has created a society in which a life of manual labor is a path to be escaped rather than pursued.

Yet as we flee from the necessity of working with our hands, we lose valuable skills which were once commonplace. Few of us, as highly-educated undergraduates of a prestigious liberal arts college, know how to repair a motor, wire a light switch, plant a garden, build a shed, or even fix that leaky tap in the bathroom. We rely on a highly specialized labor force: one-half of our country has little education but a great deal of technical skill, while the other half has more knowledge than they know what to do with, but little if any ability to survive without the services of others.

When we don’t have skills and don’t live with the people who do, we forget their value. When your handyman lives next door, he forces you by proximity to respect him and his career, but when he drives to your home from a very different part of the city, you forget how much you share in common. You pity him for his life of labor, and hope his children will have the opportunities he didn’t. Then you wonder, “If everyone is able to get a good education, who will come to fix my sink?”

The choices are three: either you condemn a certain percentage of the population to a low-wage, undervalued existence; you learn to value, respect, and pay well for the vital technical skills you lack; or you figure out how to fix your own goddamn sink.

No matter what we choose, our society is at a crossroads. College enrollment rates are falling for the first time in decades, even as high school graduation rates continue to rise. Of those few who do choose to attend college, graduation rates stand at just over 60 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. College tuition is rising to unprecedented heights, even as unemployment rates for recent graduates are steadily increasing.

Our generation needs an alternative. We need vocational training, not only to provide the general population with the most basic of technical skills, but also to train a manual workforce that is both skilled and respected. We need to value both mental and manual labor, to admire those who possess the skills and knowledge we lack, whichever they may be. It’s not a matter of which path is more prestigious, which is more valuable to society. Both are vital to our way of life, and opportunities for both need to be distributed far more equitably. Nobody has to be both an academic and a jack-of-all-trades, but sometimes it’s just nice to make your own coffee

Rebecca Glazer

Rebecca Glazer

Rebecca Glazer

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