Education, Training and the Middle Class

Americans don’t resent the wealthy, nor do people around the world. Most know they will never be rich.  They don’t care. What they do expect is to have economic hope, a sense that they will be free from fear of economic insecurity.

There is flexibility in defining hope and expectation, which are different around the world. Some want more, expect more, and are fortunate enough to get it. There is, however, no flexibility in hopelessness.  Americans expect, or used to, that hard work would provide freedom from economic fear. They knew that being an American meant there was opportunity for the willing worker.

Americans do not expect hopeless economic conditions. That’s part of being American. They expect that the government understands its role to provide the structure, both economic and cultural, under which they retain the rights granted by God, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  And that means a place to work where the future is bright, and another place to find a job if it isn’t.

In the last fifty or sixty years, it might be fair to break down Americans as they reached their early 20’s into four groups.  One could argue the four groups are not enough, but it’s enough to capture most people.

There are those who graduated from college or graduate school with a job in hand or got one shortly thereafter, and looked forward to several years of hard work and economic gain. They were confident in their ability and the structural conditions under which hard work combined with their ability, would pay off.  (In the early 70’s I left the U.S. Navy after six years, four years later graduated from a university, thinking my ability to succeed was based on my willingness to work hard. Never once did I think the American economic engine would falter, inhibiting my chances.) University graduates had high expectations, and most lived up to them.  The opportunity was there.  Economic growth was consistent.  All you had to do was to have the right degree and be willing and able to participate.  It wasn’t that hard.

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Second, there were those trained to do things, skilled tradesmen, often self-employed.  They were also confident, and part of the economic backbone of a thriving middle class.  Their ability to thrive was not so much based on education, but on training. Education without training means a country full of those can do little beyond read, type, double-click, text, swipe, copy and paste. Training means doing important tasks. (I am one of the fortunate few who was trained while in the U.S. Navy to operate a nuclear power plant, then educated in the engineering sciences in a university. That order of things turned out to be important to the things I did.)

I have traveled much of the world, worked in factories in the U.S., Mexico, China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, India, Cambodia, as well as South America, and a dozen countries in Europe.  I have made my way through small shops and large companies, and admired the skills of those I could not talk to.  Skills are learned from training, not education.  Skills from training are the foundation of the middle class.  Without training, there is no middle class.  Without a middle class, there is no hope, no freedom and no country. Without a strong and confident middle class, there is no America.

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In the U.S. we clamor for more spending on education, in my opinion, a waste. (I just heard on the news about the riots in Baltimore that education spending there is 2nd in the country.)  There is too much education, and not enough training.

A society with a solid middle class is a function of training, not education.  When a middle class is lost, as is happening in the U.S., education will not fix it. A real education is a life-long endeavor for those of us who take it as a personal responsibility, not that of the State. A real education is never over. Training means teaching people, more appropriately, showing people,  to DO things.

In the U.S. what can people DO that is useful upon graduation from high school?  Virtually nothing.  People need training to make stuff, however we have been deluded into thinking we are in a post-industrial society.  Maybe we are, but if so, we are also a post-middle-class society, and post-America.

Where can a high school graduate go to work and earn more than a menial wage? After 12 years of school, all you can earn is a few dollars an hour?  Outrageous. What do the taxpayers get in return for the $10,000 to $20,000 per student per year for a public school education?  We should have people graduate from high school able to work and pay taxes, and they would if they could DO something. A government with nothing to offer but an increase in the minimum is populist, with no understanding of how economics work. Does higher education solve the problem?

I used to live at 18 Congress Street, Portsmouth, NH, across the street from Starbucks before I decided to move onto my sailboat and head south to the Caribbean and around the world.  I had a coffee there every day for several years at 6:30AM.  I got to know all the “baristas.”  I don’t know what Starbucks pays, but I suspect it is just a bit above minimum wage.  Nearly every barista had graduated from college with a liberal arts degree, most private schools, mostly paid for by well-healed parents.  A few were highly indebted. I estimated that there had been over $2,000,000 spent on higher education preparing these good folks to work at Starbucks.  A few found proper work and left, replaced by another graduate. There are too many highly educated, untrained people serving coffee.

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Few cultures provide education and training by those who can teach and transfer skills. Training comes from a specialist, a crafts person or a mentor, not a general teacher passing himself off as an “educator.”  The U.S. Department of Education?  Don’t need it. A Department of Training?  Maybe.

The lack of American tool makers especially, and other skilled tradesmen is frightening.   These are people I looked up to, like Ed Drury when I worked at Rehrig Pacific Company many years ago.  Tool makers were clever and creative, able to take abstract ideas and turn out the jigs and fixtures needed to build the tools that factories needed to turn out the goods that kept the middle class employed in useful work. The question is, can we survive as free country without the ability to make tools?  Have we deluded ourselves into thinking that a post-industrial society can import tools and manufactured goods? We have enough lawyers.  Perhaps we can we retrain a few.

If education is important to economic sustenance, training is even more so.  Without the ability to actually DO something, education and the educated are useless.  Training is about doing, about making things, taking ideas, and making things through work with a trained work force.

The third group is the large number of people who take jobs in factories. They are mostly trained to do their jobs by the employer.  They are trustworthy and capable. The work might be demanding, but workers knew they would be able to provide for their families, maybe save for retirement, and possibly buy a fishing boat and take a vacation once in a while.  They had families, and the families stayed together. These were good folks, with solid values. They respected hard work and demanded it from their children. Most Americans have a family history that runs right through a factory, whether it was assembling cars at General Motors, locomotives or appliances at General Electric, aircraft engines at Pratt & Whitney, or operating machinery at suppliers to these companies. These were good companies and good places to work. Now we have divested ourselves of factories in the U.S. Americans hardly invest in capital equipment in the U.S.

Apple computer is the largest company in the world.  Their investment in capital equipment in the U.S. is tiny compared to their revenue. Apple is a huge, clever, creative company that contributes little or nothing to the growth of the middle class.

The first three groups of people made up the large middle class of the U.S.A. Factories mattered; they were the basis of the huge American middle class.  Without factories, there will be no middle class.  These three groups constituted most of the American work force, a work force that was confident, liked being American, and lived the dream of escaping the fear of financial insecurity.  Escaping this fear happened to a higher percentage of Americans than any other country.  Factories provided real work, stable work, not meta-work, such as government jobs that are part of no economic stream of wealth creation, who for the most part interrupt the stream of wealth creation.

There used to be a U.S. government that understood sound economic principles, providing incentives for investors to build factories to make things and create wealth.  Then we began to elect those to represent us who do not know work, and a president who has never done a man’s work for a day.

The last category is those people who are hopeless.  When the hopeless are merely a few, the confident will support or imprison them.  The hopeless are those raised without fathers and cultural constraints and respect for themselves. If the hopeless class is growing, with no route for escape, and the government fosters hopelessness by supporting it, then the fear of economic insecurity the other three groups worked so hard to escape creeps into the rest of the population, destroying confidence. The hopeless need to be limited to a few for a free society to exist. They need a way out. History shows only one way; training and a place to apply that training in making things. In the best case, poverty is transitional, retaining hope. Poverty is a fearful place, worse without hope.  In the best case, the poor find a place in the stream of wealth creation, making things.If people lose hope, then they will never be in the middle class, and never really feel American by more than birth. Without a middle class, there is no America.

The hopeless used to be people we read about, those the church fed on Thanksgiving or the woman who shamefully used food stamps at the grocery store.  No longer.  Now there is fear everywhere.  Everyone knows those who have fallen from the confident middle class to the hopeless class sneaking into food banks, ashamed.  There are also those born into the hopeless class and know nothing else.  They are the dangerous among us. They are culturally weak, fearless, angry, have no role models, living a way fostered by a government that sees them as inferior but a growing and reliable voting block.

We now also have a generation of young adults, whose parents work, but cannot enter the shrinking middle class. Unlike when I graduated, they fear the future. They might work at Starbucks, afraid they will never be able to pay off student loans. Maybe hard work isn’t going to pay off for them. Maybe the America I knew is no longer.  They don’t know real work, are not trained, cannot get a job at the factory, because it is gone, and find a college education of shockingly little value. Many who are trained will likely do just fine. But even for those who are trained, there are few places to make stuff.

Americans now claim they need jobs.  Americans don’t need jobs…they need work. Work means being part of a stream of wealth creation. Americans need to make things again.. The rest is just meta-work.

What many really want is a place to go where they can get a paycheck and do meta-work, because our culture of work has been destroyed in just two generations. Americans no longer even like work; they don’t know what work is. Americans don’t know that work is the basis for the creation of wealth.  They think jobs and wealth come from government, that the government provides jobs for many, and free money for even more. This won’t last, and I fear the end that must come when a government is so dangerous as to think wealth comes from a printing press.

The American people who no longer understand, respect and revere the power of work and wealth, will not stand as free people. I fear they will lose their God given rights, taken by government. How did all this fall apart so fast?  How did we get to be so fat and lazy? In order to have a look, I think it matters to look at the creation of wealth and work, how it is different in across cultures, and how a few cultures have so much to teach us.
http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2015/05/07/taiwan-too-many-college-graduates/26945515/
Part 2 to follow.

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