Skills, Schools, Technology, and Politicians

Just about every week, there are news stories about businesses that–despite the high unemployment rate–can’t find people to hire with the needed skills…these skills often being of a pretty basic nature. For example, the WSJ mentions an alarm-installation company that currently has two unfilled job openings—for fire-alarm and burglar-alarm technician–that have been open for nearly 18 months. The firm’s head says that he has provided about 10 prospective hires with a low-level alarm manual and asked them to come back and show they could operate the alarm panel. “None have come back,” he says.

Note that he’s not testing for people who can understand a circuit diagram or diagnose a complex failure condition, just for people who can read a detailed document and take appropriate actions based on what it says.

North American Tool Corporation has two openings in northwest Illinois. But…”I’ll write a few numbers down, mostly numbers with decimal points, because that’s what we use in manufacturing, and have them add them or subtract them, or divide by two,” says North American’s Jim Hoyt. He finds that applicants often can’t do this simple math.

Journalists and academics often blame the missing-skills problem on what they claim to be the higher skill levels required by today’s technology, but I think this aspect of the situation is overstated. I doubt that a present-day manual for an alarm system is really a more complex document than, say, a maintenance manual for a piston-powered airliner circa 1950. And while a modern CNC machine tool does require (at least) a knowledge of decimal arithmetic to program or probably even to set up, a true machinist on traditional equipment also needed this knowledge. It is possible that the average mix of verbal and mathematical literacy requirements for jobs has shifted somewhat upwards as a result of advancing technology and increased management focus on worker involvement, but I think the main problem is not that the skill requirements have become dramatically higher but rather the skill levels of the prospective workers coming out of the schools have gotten lower.

Meanwhile, New York City lost another round in the legal battle to overhaul 24 low-performing schools. State Supreme Court Judge Joan Lobis upheld an arbitrator’s ruling that the city lacks the authority to remove roughly 3,600 teachers, administrators and other staff from the schools and to require them to reapply for their jobs without benefit of seniority preferences.

What is President Barack Obama doing about the ongoing disaster that is so much of the American public education system? Well, he is creating an African-American Education Office.

Yeah, that’ll do it. More bureaucracy, more racial balkanization.

The Obama administration also wants to apply a racial and ethnic “disparate impact” test to school discipline policies..something that would surely lead inevitably to race-and-ethnicity-based quota systems for disciplinary actions. Depending on your race or ethnicity, the identical action would get you suspended or get you a warning letter…see this article. Such a policy would surely make it even more difficult than it already is for schools to maintain an environment in which any kind of learning at all can take place.

If Obama had really cared about improving education and job skills..for African-Americans and for others…he would have used his leadership position and oratorical ability to help crush what has been called “the blob”…the aggregate of narrowly-selfish teachers’ unions, dysfunctional school bureaucracies, incompetent and unaccountable administrators, useless ed schools driving pointless credentialing requirements. But of course he really has neither the interest nor the executive ability to spearhead and drive such an initiative. His interest is in using the schools as a sandbox for his ideology and a spoils system for the accumulation of power.

(School discipline links via Joanne Jacobs)

18 thoughts on “Skills, Schools, Technology, and Politicians”

  1. I agree about the technology not getting any more complex, just the products of the average school system being worse and worse taught. I’ve lost track of how many times in broadcasting that we got a new piece of equipment in house, and I sat down with the manual in my lap and taught myself how to use it by playing around with it.

  2. Your piece reminds me of the old Rolls Royce test for machinists applying for a job. The applicant was required to construct a square cross section rod and a plate with a square hole that the rod passed through with close tolerances. The square cross section ruled out lathe and drill press use.

    Clayton Cramer has written about unreasonable job requirements in computer programming but that is a different issue.

  3. One virtue of Obama’s policies is that few processes could more directly lead to home schooling, charter schools, and defunded public schools. And a more segregated population. (How the hell does he still stay at 57 in Iowatrade?)

  4. MK…the most ludicrous example of this kind of thing (excessively detailed and specific job requirements) is when a company establishes such requirements because “We’re in a hurry! We can’t afford anyone who will take even a month to come up to speed!” and then spends 6 months hunting for the paragon of perfect fit for which they are searching. I wrote about this phenomenon in Hunting the Five-Pound Butterfly:

    But that issue is, as you say, a different one. It’s reasonable for an employer to give an employee time to come up to speed on a new version of the CAD system he already knows, or to teach an entry-level manufacturing employee how to read a micrometer; it’s not reasonable to expect an employer to take the aforesaid manufacturing employee, a high-school graduate, and teach him how to do arithmetic with decimals. Or, even worse, to take a prospective alarm installer and go all the way back to 6th grade and teach him how to read documents with any degree of complexity.

  5. “I doubt that a present-day manual for an alarm system is really a more complex document than, say, a maintenance manual for a piston-powered airliner circa 1950”

    It’s probably far less descriptive, and too reliant on flow charts and menus. The earlier document would have been written in plain English and contained numerous detailed diagrams and exploded drawings, which often gave the engineers all the answers they needed.

    On a different (but related) note, I recently found an old UK newspaper dating from the 1960’s, and the most noticeable difference compared to the current edition was the complete lack of spelling mistakes, poor grammar and construction. It soon dawned on me that a) The journalists were taught properly, and b) even if they missed something the typesetters would spot it and make the necessary corrections before it ever got to press.

  6. This is what Acton, MA considered to be 6th Grade math in 2005. See page 3, Add, subtract and multiply decimals.

    Our public schools consider decimal arithmetic a 6th grade skill. I assume they expect 80% of those students to become familiar and able.

    Unemployment is 20% among recent college grads. Maybe that is the 20% who were uncomfortable with decimals.

    In defense of grade school students, I was good at math, but found my grade school instruction to be confused. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I learned complex fractions, percentages, and decimal arithmetic from reading sections in the World Book Encyclopedia.

  7. I agree with Dave: the 1950s manual would have been better written.

    I disagree with Dave: it was probably subeditors who debugged journalists’ English, not typesetters. Mind you, there were probably fewer bugs to de-.

  8. I think the default setting of most people is stupid, lazy and selfish. I’m not saying people have to be that way,but if expectations are low,people will live down to them. If politicians run the schools, they will be run for the benefit of the politicians. More accurately for the benefit of the teachers’ unions, which in turn support the politicians. The students are a pretext,an afterthought. The lack of discipline and rigor Is partly a matter of ideology. NYC got rid of the board examiners because minority teachers were not passing the licensing examinations.You can imagine what this did for teacher quality. My wife taught in NYC and found it difficult to do her job because the schools would not help her enforce classroom order.

    Anything the politicians touch turns to crap. Are there any state run school systems in the developed world which aren’t in the process of being dumbed down?

  9. Had a long talk with a young man who was considering majoring in either engineering or physics and wanted my thoughts on the relative careers. My daughter is majoring in physics and I’m an engineer so I could give him some perspective.

    But what surprised me was his unprompted question about foreign competition. He asked about H1B visas and whether employers would even hire American graduates when foreigners were allowed here to compete on price. I thought it was a very insightful question worthy of sharing.

    If that is on the minds of young Americans, it has to be discouraging to them to take up STEM courses or even prepare for them.

  10. Re: Whitehall:

    I don’t think that wage competition is much of an issue for H1Bs. The Dept. of Labor Wage and Hours Division investigates companies paying less-than-prevailing wages for H1B jobs, and, however imperfectly DOL may do it, H1B petitions do get revoked over it.

    My guess is that research and academic physicists (and practitioners of other STEM fields) may be adversely affected by foreign competition. Any academic position in physics, for example, is generally going to require years in a post-doc to be competitive for. For American students, this is several more years of relative poverty; for Indian or Chinese students, post-doc stipends can look like a good wage relative to what’s in the offing back home.

  11. I told the kid that the guy at the Olympics who stands on the top place, with the gold medal, listening to his national anthem being played, is the winner. Will that be him, an American? If he wants to be that guy, he needs to work for it.

  12. The government schools used to have a pretty decent vocational education program that included shop, auto mechanics, agriculture, and welding. In the 1970’s a big push was started to encourage everyone to go to college, so Voc ed was de-emphasized and became the first victim of budget cuts over the years until it was deleted at almost every government high school in the US. Even though I went to college and have an engineering degree, I still took shop class in high school back in the early 1970’s. It was well worth it. Now few boys have any skills with tools of any kind. A damn shame, since only about 25% of 18 yr old boys have the aptitude for college and dang near all of them are heartily sick of sitting in class by the time they graduate HS.

  13. Re: H1B visas

    Based on my experience in programming and mathematics since the late 90s H1B is less about competing on price directly but what you supply for a given price. Expectations of constant 60+ hour/6-7 work weeks are easier to bring to bear on H1B candidates as they can’t just quit and stay in the US.

    I’ve usually explained it as H1Bs are less about salary and more about indentured servitude (as I understand it, after a certain period you can quit and remain as a legal resident with permission to work).

  14. Give all applicants the wunderlich test. Then do normal job interviews only on those who score 35 or better (out of 50).

    Wunderlich 35+ will find candidates who are able to learn new stuff.

    Interview to find pleasant personalities, good grooming and agreeable fashion sense. I require people who love dogs.
    Also I hire to fill gov’t quotas by race, creed, sex, sex pref, color, handicap, vertical challenge, and mental stability.

  15. “I require people who love dogs.”


    Maybe at a vet’s office or some exotic restaurant this could be justified.

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