29.6.17

THE DOWNSIDE OF TRACKING.

Germany's sorting of students onto vocational and academic tracks brings rigidities with it. Emulating Germany’s Apprenticeship System Won’t Make America Great Again, suggests University of Rochester economist Eric Hanushek.
[T]he German system is not a realistic model for the U.S. It relies on a very stratified education system along with regulated and heavily unionized labor markets. More importantly, its focus on entry-level job skills distracts attention from the much deeper problem of ensuring the general cognitive skills that are a prerequisite for long-term growth and productivity improvement.
There's more to producing a cohort of blue-collar aristocrats than culling the herd commencing in fourth grade.  "Vocationally-trained workers with relatively narrow skills face a harsher labor market with time as the nature of production changes."  That has probably always been the case, and in the United States, where the comparative advantage, even in heavy industry, has long been in knowledge-intensive, advanced-technology goods (how else characterize the open hearth steel works of the 1890s or the automobile assembly line of the 1920s?), and the ability to adapt on the fly matters, even in Europe.  "Firms are led to choose from a smaller set of production processes that favor the existing skills of their workers."  There has to be something in the old economics research about putty-clay technologies that's relevant.  And attempts to manage creative destruction run the risk of going wrong.
The larger skill gaps are found in a wide range of service and technology areas, many in the white-collar occupations.  Thinking of moving apprenticeships into such new areas is not simple. First there is the issue of convincing firms in these shortage areas to provide extensive training to new workers, when these workers might not stay with the firms providing the training.  Then, there are also issues of defining the areas in which to focus attention. As more and more jobs become routinized and automated, which occupations will remain static and in high demand, requiring little adaptation? Indeed, the difficulty of forecasting future occupational demands is an ever-present problem, particularly for the government. Even the Germans with their well-honed system are struggling with this.

One additional motivation for expanded vocational education is a perceived overemphasis on college degrees, which could perhaps be corrected by providing a viable alternative. With the current public discussions emphasizing providing college-ready skills to all high school graduates, many people question whether everybody should go to college. Isn’t there going to be increased demand for skilled workers who have not gotten expensive college degrees? The answer of course is yes. But at the same time future workers will still quite uniformly require the basic skills that allow them to adapt to an ever-changing economy. The retraining problem will not go away.
In the United States, which is not an advanced tribal society (social cohesion being easier in an extended family, which works to a first approximation in any country named for its dominant tribe) there's the additional challenge of education in the face of fifty years or so of deconstructing either family or bourgeois norms.  Here's how Joanne Jacobs summarizes.  "Poorly educated youths will have trouble learned skilled occupations, writes Hanushek. Job training can’t substitute for 'high-quality primary and secondary schooling that provides basic cognitive skills to all and prepares them for an uncertain future.'"  Exactly.

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