Welding isn’t the skill welders need most

I’m reading a new book on the so-called skills gap. Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work by University of Wisconsin professor Matthew Hora. Important book on an important topic.

As I’m reading I ran across this quote from a HR professional at a manufacturer in Wisconsin:

“What’s funny is that when we talk to our development board or the local technical college and they talk about the skills gap, they’re talking about teaching people to weld––the gap we see is that people can’t hold a job and can’t solve a problem.”

Exactly! As we have explored frequently (see this post), the skills employers hire for first and foremost and that are the most important to job and career success are not narrow occupational skills, but rather are broad skills that are foundational to all good-paying jobs no matter what the required level of education attainment. Those foundation skills are the “grit” skills described in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: grit, self control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. And the 6Cs described in Roberta Michnick Golinkoff’s and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creativity and confidence.

Unfortunately policy makers, the business community and thought leaders are pressing education–-both in high schools and college––to narrow teaching and learning to  specific occupational skills.  And driving out of the curriculum the broad skills that are far more important to career success. And that employers rate as the most important skills they hire for. Not smart!

So what would occupational training look like if it was designed to build the broad skill set someone needs to succeed in both technical and professional and managerial occupations?  Take a look at the Apprentice School operated by Newport News Shipbuiding. Yes it goal is to train shipbuilders. But not just for a job, but a career. Here is how they describe themselves:

The Apprentice School—founded in 1919 at Newport News Shipbuilding—is the preeminent apprenticeship program in the nation and offers four-, five-, and eight-year apprenticeships in nineteen shipbuilding disciplines and eight advanced programs of study. … The school offers apprentices the opportunity to earn college credit, receive competitive pay and benefits and learn a trade. The school is committed to fostering apprentices’ development of craftsmanship, scholarship and leadership.

Nothing quick or cheap about their approach to training for the shipbuilding trades. They believe it takes four to eight years to learn a trade and develop “craftsmanship, scholarship and leadership.” And that all four matter to job and career success.

Another example is training to be a professional cook at Johnson & Wales College either in a two year degree or a four year degree program. Here is how they describe their associates degree program in Culinary Arts:

Johnson & Wales is a globally renowned leader in culinary education for a reason. In our unique, world-class Culinary Arts associate degree program, you’ll learn not only the craft and art of cooking, but also business and management skills, science and nutrition, and global citizenship. You’ll also develop the critical thinking and communication skills necessary for long-term career progression through our integrated arts and sciences and front-of-the-house curriculum.

Both of these higher education institutions understand that job and career success are far more than “knowing how to weld”. That “the gap we see is that people can’t hold a job and can’t solve a problem” is what most gets in the way of job seekers finding and holding a job and advancing so as to put together a successful forty year career. The Apprentice School and Johnson & Wales approach to occupational training needs to become the way we prepare students for job and career success. As long as we focus on narrow occupational skills and doing training on the cheap we are going to end up with workers who do not have the skills for good-paying careers and employers unable to find the workers they need.



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