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The Catalyst: Growing the Middle Class with Skills

Latest issue of offers concrete steps to connect workers with modern jobs, including factory jobs.

Article by William McKenzie February 10, 2017 //   3 minute read

We hear plenty these days about factory jobs being lost, but what about equipping workers for jobs that require such modern skills as using a computer on the plant floor? The New York Times and the Hechinger Report each recently ran stories on this challenge. The Times noted that "Yet rarely discussed in the political debate over lost jobs are the academic skills needed for today's factory-floor positions, and the pathways through education that lead to them."

Perhaps, but the pages of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute are filled with proposals for gaining those skills.  

Anne Humphrey, director of the Bush Institute's Education Reform Initiative, explains in her Catalyst essay that high schools need to think of graduation as the starting line for students, not the finish line. For one thing, high school graduation may not translate into mastery of key subjects. Here’s how Humphrey puts it:

What is a diploma worth if so many students are not mastering core subjects such as math and reading? And what does this gap mean to students, to those in higher education, and, importantly, to employers?-

Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, the largest higher education institution in America, builds upon Humphrey’s essay and explains why modern skills require a college education. Here’s how he sees the link between education and today’s jobs: 

The hands-on manufacturing and manual labor jobs of the 20th century are taking a back seat to 21st century jobs. As that shift occurs, Americans must master a series of competencies and possess a set of soft skills only acquired through a college education.

And Emily Stover DeRocco, former assistant secretary of labor under President George W. Bush, describes how the nature of work has changed. She also presents five strategies for both individual workers and the nation itself to cope with these changes. Here’s one hint:

The U.S. seems to be moving out of a pure “knowledge economy” that rewards workers based on knowledge or degrees to a "performance economy" that rewards using knowledge to improve performance. This shift requires a stronger connection between the worlds of work and learning.  

In each of those pieces, the authors offer concrete steps to connect workers with modern jobs, including factory jobs. As The Times reports, those require computer skills more than a strong back. If we want to grow the middle class, we need those skills as well as traditional bachelors' degrees. This is not an either/or choice.