Is there a future for manufacturing and vocational education?

I’m not given to quoting Glenn Beck, but I have always rather enjoyed Mike Rowe, the TV star who made a pretty good living publicizing the kind of everyday jobs Americans do.

The debate still raging downstream on NewsCut following the comments of Minnesota’s teacher of the year, however, invites more discussion about what we expect out of the nation’s education system. It featured a person who insisted he was conned into higher education and now is in a field that won’t pay him what he believes it should.

This video is making the rounds on social media today in which Rowe, perhaps grooving a pitch in Beck’s famous blustery wheelhouse, criticizes what he refers to as a public relations campaign that convinced young people that they should go to a four-year university. He says it came at the expense of community colleges and vocational training.

It’s worth pointing out that Rowe attended a community college and then graduated from a university, a not-unheard-of practice since a person can take required courses for a fraction of the cost of a four-year university. That point is a constant selling point at Minnesota’s community colleges.

Rowe insists the PR campaign has been going since the mid-’70s, about the time I graduated from my four-year university, for the record. As I recall, however, the tail wasn’t wagging the dog. Manufacturing jobs weren’t disappearing because there was no one to do them in my area of the country. They were disappearing — to the South back then — because there were other people to do the work cheaper and many of the locally-owned manufacturing companies sold out to bigger national companies. Those companies have since sold out to multinational companies and the jobs moved offshore.

If there was no one willing to do the work, the cities of America wouldn’t be full of unemployed people who had the jobs that were taken away from them.

As for whether community colleges are valued, take a drive up Highway 120 in Oakdale into White Bear Lake sometime when classes are in session at Century College. The place, like many community colleges, is bursting. Want to get into the nursing program there? Good luck. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy. Competition is fierce.

The narrative that people don’t want vocational jobs doesn’t seem to be supported by the number of trained people still having difficulty find them.

To be sure, there are some manufacturers in Minnesota who can’t find enough workers, but that may be because generations have grown up watching the manufacturing sector disappear. A successful company bucking the trend might have some allure now, but young people are looking for fields in which they think they have a future. Manufacturing has not done a good job at convincing people there’s a future in it past the next paycheck.

And when state officials announced last month that the state has regained the number of jobs it lost in the recession, it also noted there are fewer jobs in manufacturing now, and more in health care.

The other sector that increased? Education.