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Manufacturer's Agenda: Closing Critical Education Gaps

Sept. 8, 2014
    Musings on meeting the skill and education demands of next-generation manufacturing.

Sometimes I worry that if it weren't for frivolous art classes, we all would have been doomed to navigate our computers via the dreaded c: prompt.

This thought comes to mind when I hear vociferous proponents of STEM education lapse into ridiculing history, philosophy and other liberal arts majors and, often, the "soft" sciences such as anthropology and psychology.

"I don't have a problem with history and sociology majors," the trope goes. "I tip them well when they serve my coffee at Starbucks."

In a room crowded with manufacturing executives, the remark elicits some laughs, a ripple of clapping and approving nods. A few people squirm; perhaps they hold one of those "worthless" degrees. (Full disclosure: I do.)

The situation prompts introspection about the relationship of education to success; what skills and education employers, particularly manufacturers, want or need employees to have; and how education should be organized and delivered. With the current debate over the value of a college education, the relative worth of various disciplines, and renewed interest in vocational and skills training, it's critical that we rationally think this through.

But we should be careful. Recall what happened a couple decades ago, the last time we had a similar debate about education. Then, in our fervor to promote college education, we denigrated vocational and skills training to near extinction. Not a good outcome.

Education must be a lifelong endeavor.

Further, we must stress a far more important point that seems to be missing in the current discussion: Education must be a lifelong endeavor. Whatever education a young person attains in their late teens and early 20s, it will neither last a lifetime, nor should it limit their future.

I recall Carlos Cardoso, CEO of Kennametal, talking about the many Ph.D.s at the company who launched their academic education in the factory, with jobs as production workers. There are no limits.

At another event, a company owner desperately searching for welders complained about the welders with 30 years of experience who weren't qualified to fill his company's job openings: "These guys spent their entire career making the same weld on an assembly line," he declared. There are no lifetime guarantees.

Finally, I think of leaders who recognize the value of leveraging a broad spectrum of skills and education to create winning products and build growing businesses. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he said, "We're not just a tech company, even though we invent some of the highest technology products in the industry. It's the marriage of that plus the humanities or the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple."

The takeaway from these musings is simple: As leaders, we must instill in our dropouts, our high school graduates, and employees at every level that the learning, in whatever form or at whatever level, must never end.

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