Much hand-wringing accompanies today’s discussions about education. Kids don’t learn enough reading, writing and arithmetic. Drop-out rates are too high. Colleges are turning out graduates who cannot find jobs. Companies cannot find qualified applicants.
Robert Kaplan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, recently cautioned that we must do more with vocational education. Going forward, he sees problems developing as the nation grapples with automation, new technologies, and an aging workforce. These looming effects on unemployment and productivity are very real.
Agriculture was fundamental to the United States economy in the early years of the nation. It began some 400 years ago with William Bradford. He was faced with organizing the colony of Pilgrims in Massachusetts. His solution derived from real-life, on-the- ground experiments.
The first Bradford plan decreed that all colonists got an equal share of the year’s bounty, whether or not they worked the land. No matter how much sweat or hours worked, everyone shared equally in the harvest. This commune failed. It was the early 1600s--predating Marx and Engels by more than 200 years.
That failure caused Bradford to devise a second plan. It succeeded. Families got plots of land, worked them, owned the harvest, and sold the excess above their own needs. Bradford had put individual greed to work, and it succeeded.
Individual greed is a human trait and it is fundamental to capitalism. In my view, Bradford should be credited with the experiments that led to the future success of the United States. Of course, rules and regulations must be put in place to keep greed in check. But the basic ideas of private ownership of property, together with rules to regulate it against excess, were first set in motion by William Bradford.
While agriculture prevailed in the early years in America, it was manufacturing that propelled the United States economy to its full flowering. This gradual transition occurred over a very long period of time.
Farming in the beginning led to animal husbandry, blacksmithing and the building trades. Youngsters grew up in families that were expert in various business endeavors. Or they apprenticed themselves to others, headed toward their own careers.
Growth was slow in those early years, but it was forming a solid foundation. Youngsters learned the science, technology, engineering and math requisite for surveying, canal building, the glass and metal industries, railroading, and more.
Manufacturing caught fire following the Civil War. Major industrial processes and inventions began tumbling over each other in the latter part of the 1800s, and they continue to this day.
Industry and manufacturing expanded at a terrific pace. Inventions and processes included photography, electricity, internal combustion engines, airplanes, telephones, elevators, running water, sewerage systems, motion pictures, home appliances, steel and chemicals, and much more. More recently came computers, aerospace, the Internet, search engines, robots, artificial intelligence--the list continues.
Just as agriculture was never left behind completely, so, too, manufacturing will never be left behind completely. At major transition points, some cultures and their economies take a sharp left or right turn, choosing a socialist or an authoritarian path. Neither is a good idea, and the world has seen the failed results of each of these.
Other cultures and economies, like our own, develop more slowly into new realities. Today, alarmists will point to robotics, artificial intelligence, automation, and other headwinds in the current economy. The question becomes how to deal with all this. It is a transition from the purely manufacturing age to the new information age.
The residuals of the manufacturing age will always be with us, just as the residuals of the agricultural age are still with us. Computers and computing form the basis of the information age. But remember that computers and computing require hardware and software.
Transitioning from agriculture to manufacturing saw thousands of farm workers leave crops behind to seek jobs in factories. Transitioning from manufacturing to the information age is seeing people leave factories to learn programming skills.
All of this calls into question how we educate young people. We have moved up the technology ladder, and tomorrow’s challenges are already with us. All kids need to know reading, writing and arithmetic, but this does not mean that every kid should head to college. Remember Kaplan’s cautionary advice to do more with vocational education.
It’s time for balance in our educational systems. A certain kind of cultural bullying pressures youngsters to head to college. They know nothing of business and economics--the fundamentals of the nation. Frequently, they get degrees in subjects that offer no real career path. Sensing no future, these snowflakes join demonstrations promoted by the media-defined narrative of the day. Where are the nascent plumbers and welders and programmers among them?
Going into a trade should not be viewed as a consolation prize. Dream careers begin when young people find their futures early on, getting a leg up on their life’s work. This is more likely to occur outside the public school system.
The Future School of Fort Smith is an example of a step in the right direction. Director Trish Flanagan notes that “We want students to be able to test drive their careers.” This means real-life, on-the-ground interaction in a field of the student’s choice.
In addition, vocational schools across the country are offering youngsters opportunities to start early. Further, the growth of Internet-based courses to train youngsters in various trades, including programming, reflects needs not being elsewhere met.
Moving from the agricultural age to manufacturing and then to the age of information represents major cultural shifts. The future will be programmed by today’s students. But everyone will always need a plumber.
By Al Warr
Over the past 40+ years, Al has founded, operated, grown and expanded several small businesses. He knows the acid burn in his stomach when the cash flow stops flowing. For 10 years, Al headed the Business Owners Institute in New Jersey. Helped over 2,000 business owners work through problems. Currently he writes a daily Free blog HelpMySmallBusiness.Blogspot.com. In his spare time, Al has written over a dozen books--find them online at Amazon.com/Kindle.