After decades of off-shoring, downsizing, shuttered factories, and stranded blue collar workers, the United States is on the edge of an industrial renaissance. This is news that would have seemed beyond improbable even a decade ago, but companies like Motorola Mobility, Apple, BMW, Bosch, and Volkswagen are opening plants and committing millions of dollars to build new products here. There is no question that these manufacturing jobs are going to look different from the ones that were outsourced beginning in the late 1990s. Changes in technology mean that there will be fewer jobs in these new factories, and they will require different skills, since today’s manufacturing work is largely done in front of a computer. And while the return of jobs is encouraging, it is becoming apparent that those skilled workers are hard to find.
Katherine Newman and Hella Winston’s provocative new book, Learning to Labor in the 21st Century, reveals the scope of that skills gap and looks at what the U.S. education system has to do to prepare students entering the workforce with the skills that this industrial renaissance will demand. This training was once the province of a vocational education system that made American manufacturing the envy of the world. Today, vocational education has faltered, despite extraordinarily dedicated teachers and highly motivated working class students. We may need to turn to models from countries like Germany, with its robust training and apprenticeship system, to resuscitate vocational education in the U.S. But there are signs that such change is possible, as government and industry are beginning to recognize how critical it is for the residents of our industrial cities as well as for our economic prosperity that we seize the opportunities provided by the changing manufacturing landscape.