It’s good to see that Katherine Newman has spoken up for really investing in kids who aren’t going on to college, which will always be a substantial chunk of them, no matter what. If there’s any sort of social contract worth defending, it has to include them. This means high quality technical programs in high school, staffed by teachers who are well respected and remunerated. Read her op-ed piece.
But that’s only one side of the story, the supply side. The demand side, the willingness of firms to hire well-trained young people to good jobs with long-term career possibilities, is the other. Newman makes a passing reference to Germany’s apprenticeship system, which has become fashionable. But German firms find places for these apprentices, actually paying them to learn the ropes—unlike the unpaid internships that are proliferating over here. Companies design jobs to be staffed by skilled, committed workers, so the requirement of a credential is not just a formality. And behind it all, the reason why these commitments are still (mostly) honored, is codetermination—worker participation in management—in large firms and the central role played by public financial institutions in financing small and medium size enterprises. The German labor movement has been saying out loud that this system is under attack, and a major reason for the decline of the SPD is the criticism that they are not standing up for workers at a critical moment. Even so, however, the role of production workers in German firms is light years ahead of the situation in the US.
It’s necessary but not sufficient to promote widespread technical training; there have to be jobs that take advantage of skill and reward it accordingly. That means a politics of changing who runs firms and for what purposes.