“Reskilling America”- Learning to Labor in the 21st Century: Katherine Newman

A labor expert is calling for increased vocational training to help equip the unskilled workforce in the U.S. with the tools needed to fill good-paying jobs that are are already available in today’s economy.

“It’s a pretty big problem,” said Katherine Newman, author of “Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the 21st Century,” and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “In manufacturing alone, there are some 600,000 jobs that have not been filled for lack of people who have the right skills.” Newman added that number will only grow as the current workforce is quickly aging, leaving fewer people stepping up behind them as they retire.

There has been a lot of talk during presidential debates about American jobs going overseas and college becoming unaffordable. But the problem, said Newman, isn’t that there aren’t enough jobs here. It’s that employees aren’t being trained or prepared to fill some of those vacant jobs. “I think there has been a long standing skepticism … about vocational training,” said Newman. “In part, it’s part of the long debate that goes all the way back to W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who argued vociferously about whether training for pragmatic economic opportunity was more important or less important than training for liberal arts education.”

Over the years, Newman said so-called blue-collar jobs have become stigmatized. That was particularly true with the post-World War II romanticizing of white-collar jobs, which tended to lead through the gates of universities. Since then, generations of high school students have been steered towards university campuses.  “The technical training that I’m talking about in ‘Reskilling America’ is absolutely critical if we’re going to be at the top of manufacturing, or IT, or any of the new emerging areas, and that isn’t necessarily what four-year universities can do. So, we need both. Not either or,” she added.

Newman said part of the solution is a combination of funneling money from the educational budget to technical schools, rewarding teachers working in these fields and creating apprentice partnerships.

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