Monday, August 3, 2015

The death of shop class

Young female apprentice sanding a cabinet part in a woodshop.
Scenes like this are happening less often in our high schools
by Mark E Anderson
This past week I attended my class reunion. On Saturday morning we took a tour of my alma mater, Madison East High School—GO PURGOLDERS! Many things had changed in the school, and some things, like the smell of the boys locker room, will likely always stay the same. In high school, I was a shop rat. Power mechanics, auto mechanics, auto body, drafting, print shop, plastics shop, wood shop, and metal shop. Those classes are likely the only reason I was able to graduate from high school. I learned how to weld, sandblast, paint, sand, use power tools, hand tools, I learned to set type and run a printing press. I learned how to repair anything from a lawn mower engine up to my dad's '79 Mercury Zephyr. I learned more about math in wood shop than I did in Algebra and Geometry.
While I use few of those skills today, I still do use some of them. I am not afraid to use a saw, hammer a nail, and could likely still run an arc welder if I needed to. Those classes were central to my education. Teachers like Mr. Ackley (wood shop), Mr. Sample (auto shop), Mr. Bloom (power mechanics), Mr. Kane (metal shop), Mr. Suchomel (plastics), and Mr. Stasiluk (drafting and print shop) taught me the importance of reading comprehension, math, and above all, patience. They taught the practical side of what I was learning in English, Algebra, Geometry, and Physics.
More below.
What disappointed me most about the school tour was what had happened to the shop areas of the school. No welding can be done in metal shop anymore. That wing of the building, built in 1932, does not have adequate ventilation. The paint booth in the auto shop is gone, also a victim of inadequate ventilation—there's no money to upgrade the ventilation for those classrooms. The auto shop is reduced to nothing more than simple auto maintenance classes as there is no money for the diagnostic tools used on modern automobiles. The print shop is no more, a victim of advancing technology. The plastics lab is now an athletic trainer's room. The wood shop, while still full of equipment, is no longer as popular as it once was.
We often hear of the skills gap, where there are jobs out there, but not enough qualified applicants for those jobs:
Based upon estimates of surveyed executives, about 60 percent of the manufacturing jobs unfilled today are attributable to a shortage of applicants with the requisite skills. Thus the authors anticipate that 2 million of the projected 3.4 million manufacturing jobs that come online by 2025 will be unfilled because of the skills gap.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has also mentioned the skills gap in his weekly radio address:
I've frequently heard from employers that they cannot find enough skilled workers to fill positions. The skills gap is a very real concern in Wisconsin and around the country. And the gap is only expected to increase. In the next ten years, approximately seventy percent of jobs will require some training behind a high school diploma but less than a four year degree.
This is the same governor who has attacked public schools during his tenure in office to the point of crippling them. For all his talk of tools and reforms for public education, his record more than speaks for itself:
The Wisconsin budget accelerates Walker’s four-year attack on the public sector, in particular the public schools. Among its measures are an expansion of a voucher program that provides taxpayer funding of private schools and cuts of $250 million to the state’s nationally renowned public university system.
Between the attacks on public education and the well-meaning emphasis on academics due to the federal No Child Left Behind initiative, which has induced high schools to shift resources toward core subject areas of math and reading, shop classes like machining, welding, and robotics are being crowded out. The very classes that allowed me to actually understand the Pythagorean theorem or Newton's Third Law are the very classes that are on the chopping block. We will always need people to be able to weld, fix cars, and other trades and these jobs should not be looked down upon, nor should they be looked at as second tier jobs.
The work of electricians, builders, plumbers, chefs, paramedics, carpenters, mechanics, engineers, security staff, and all the rest is absolutely vital to the quality of each of our lives. Yet the demands of academic testing mean that schools often aren’t able to focus on these other capabilities at all. Vocational programs – such as carpentry or welding classes, cosmetology classes or many of the other practical areas of study available in some US high schools and in the vocational schools that dot our cities and suburbs — are seen as second-rate options for people who don’t make the academic cut.

In many cases the very people screaming about the skills gap, and stating that they desperately need skilled workers are the very ones responsible for gutting school funding.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) is pushing to eliminate the state's top income tax bracket of 7.65 percent, a rate paid by individuals earning $240,190 per year or more and married couples earning $320,250 per year or more.
Aiming to make Wisconsin more attractive to business, Republican lawmakers have proposed reducing the state tax on the production earnings of manufacturers and agricultural businesses to almost nothing by 2016. The tax reductions - slashing the rate in annual steps from the current 7.9% to 0.4% - would apply to the production income of the businesses, not to income such as royalties and investments. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the measure would cost the state $359.7 million over its first five years, and $128.7 million a year once it is fully phased in starting in 2016.
How can manufacturers expect to have intelligent, trained workers when they do not want to pay taxes? Not all teens are great at academics, and not all kids are going to be good welders. But, each child should have an equal chance at success. It is well past time to make businesses pay their fair share towards educating the youth of America. If they need an educated work force—and they do—they should help pay for it.

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