America's Education Catch-22, Part 3

Why companies no longer train their employees.

You can learn a lot from Amazon reviews and product descriptions, and not just about the items they're promoting.  Here is the description for the book Superpower: The Making of a Steam Locomotive, by David Weitzman:

Ben is just eighteen when one day, in 1925, he goes to work with his father and grandfather at "the Loco" in Lima, Ohio. But he is soon caught up in a marvelous adventure-the building of a new locomotive, the first Berkshire, one of the most powerful and efficient ever.

The apprentice meets engineer Will Woodard, who explains the dilemmas and niceties of locomotive design. In the pattern shop, Ben see Woodard's blueprints turned into finely-crafted wooden pattern for castings of iron and steel. From Marko Ukropina, an "old country" foundryman, Ben learns the secrets of pouring the massive frames (and to be more careful around white-hot steel). He follows the rough castings to the machine shop, where they are planed smooth and true. In the forge, Ben joins a team of hammermen wrestling a glowing steel ingot under the ground-shaking steam hammer three stories tall-and realizes why only the biggest and brawniest men work here.

Superpower chronicles the building of a steam locomotive in meticulous detail. But there is more here-it is also the story of working men, many of them immigrants from all over Europe. It recalls a time when family members worked together, and when pride in craftsmanship was intrinsic to American life. Based on oral histories of Lima's workers and their families, Superpower is, most of all, a story of America at work.

"America at work" is certainly not how anyone would describe the America of today.  The Lima Locomotive Works Ben grew up in stopped making locomotives in the 1950s and closed entirely in 1980; the building was torn down in the late '90s.  As we've seen in the course of this series, American manufacturing is doing fine, but American mass-employment for the unskilled in manufacturing can well be symbolized by Lima's fate: troubled for decades, and today, basically dead.

We've seen that the reason for this societally-devastating change is not cheap Chinese labor, as often assumed, but rather a lack of Americans with suitable technical knowledge.  Superpower graphically illustrates how such knowledge was imparted in the old days: young folks were hired cheaply as apprentices and unskilled labor, then slowly learned useful skills over time from experienced masters until, one day, they were the master training a new generation of apprentices.  This process took years or decades, but for all of that time they earned a wage and their employer earned a profit on their increasingly useful work.

No more.  Modern manufacturing requires highly-skilled workers who are all but useless to anyone until their training is complete; they must spend years in college at their own expense before they can even hope to qualify for a job.  There are also a small number of old-school unskilled-labor positions, but with nothing in between the two, there's no hope for advancement through on-the-job training while working.

Our national Great and Good talk about the need for all Americans to improve their education and leftist opinionmakers propound the importance of doing so at taxpayer expense.  Alas, government-funded education has led to useless diplomas, worthless knowledge, and overeducated baristas both at home and abroad.

Private schools paid for with students' own money have a better track record - at least, they generally sell fewer totally valueless degrees than the government-subsidized ones - but even there, all too many willing workers leave school with massive debts and no job.

As at the Lima Locomotive Works, American employers once made it their business to educate and improve their employees' skills, whether by on-the-job training and apprenticeships or by paying for outside education.  At the very highest reaches, that's still true: the highest high-flyers at Fortune 500 companies may find themselves the happy recipients of scholarships to Harvard for an MBA.  Otherwise, company-paid training has become rare.

The Tragedy of the Commons

How did we reach this point?  Once upon a time, virtually every significant American corporation had a Department of Training, tasked with increasing the skills of each employee.  Companies ran their own classes and apprenticeship programs, hired outside teachers for special seminars on up-to-date techniques, even sent their best and brightest off to gain knowledge from outside institutions and bring it back to spread around.

Of course, employees are not slaves; at any time, a worker had every right to quit and go elsewhere.  The company could take the risk because workers elsewhere were also quitting and were probably just as well trained; a replacement could be found and life would go on much as before.  This ecosystem only worked, though, because everyone participated.

Consider what happened in the 1970s and early 1980s, when manufacturing started to struggle all across America.  A company that's worried about making the next payroll isn't too concerned about where it'll find trained workers in ten years; the expense of training programs is an obvious first place to cut.  It doesn't have any immediate impact that you can see; the workers are all still just as knowledgeable as they were yesterday, and if we need any more, well, we can just hire people that already have the experience, can't we?

Sure you can - except that if everybody is struggling and cutting training programs, you'll have a nationwide skill shortage, and that's just what happened.

Eventually, community colleges and technical schools took up some of the slack, but unlike the old-time company training programs that were provided by the employer, individuals had to pay for tech school themselves.  Instead of being paid while learning, they were now paying, and without even the promise of a job at the end!

So we find ourselves in an educational Catch-22.  Few companies can afford to provide serious training for their employees; it costs so much that employers can't both train and compete on a world stage.  Trained employees can still leave for greener pastures at any time.  Requiring each worker to get their own training at their own expense requires clairvoyance into what will be needed years down the road while the debts incurred remain for a lifetime.  When companies paid for training they had strong incentives to make sure that the skills taught had an immediate bottom-line benefit.

What about having the government pay for everyone's education at all levels?  Other countries do this.  It doesn't work there either, with much of the expensive education being wasted and useless.  Unemployment levels are often even higher than ours.

What's the solution?  Perhaps there simply isn't one.  Perhaps, thanks to global competition and the worldwide pursuit of ultimate efficiency, life is just an inherently risky, unreliable, and unstable proposition.

That may not be what any of us want to hear, but it's better to face an unhappy truth than to remain blind to it.  The longer our politicians and leaders promise expensive "solutions" when there simply is no such thing, the more lives will be destroyed and wasted waiting for help that will never come.  As William Johnson said:

If it is to be, it is up to me.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Business.
Reader Comments

no mention of shutting down the influx of foreign labor. If this happened local firms would be forced to train workers.

September 1, 2018 5:35 PM

I think minimum wage laws and unions killed off the apprentice system. If you are a new trainee, you get "paid" in dollars and knowledge. The more dollars you want, the less knowledge you earn. So you better get the knowledge on your own dime elsewhere. ... schools, other companies, trade schools etc. Many companies find it is more efficient to pay local wages in Mexico, China, Vietnam etc , train the workers and not get harassed by unions and government thugs.

September 1, 2018 7:57 PM
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