My father was the president of the Rockford, Illinois Labor Council when I was a kid. He was a machinist at a time when Rockford and Cincinnati were the centers of the nation’s machine tool industry. I remember that many of those working as machinists in Rockford back then were Hungarian refugees; skilled machinists who had fled after Soviet tanks had put down their attempt to topple their Communist government in 1956.
These men had been trained in Europe, served apprenticeships there and once they got to this country helped make this country a manufacturing behemoth. Over the years I became convinced that we owed more than we could ever repay to these refugees from the Communists and Nazis who came with skills we never really instilled in workers here. We didn’t have to; Europe sent us theirs.
They ended up running the factory floors of the Fifties and Sixties, but as no more are coming, we are going to have to train our own if we want to revitalize our manufacturing sector and prepare the men and women of today for the jobs that revitalization will create. Heck, we are going to have to give them the training they could use to fill the many good unfilled jobs that exist already.
The Trump administration may be on the road to doing just that if last week’s announcement that apprenticeship programs will be at the heart of its labor policy. Fewer and fewer Americans since the Sixties have sought to develop the skills to fill these jobs because young people have been told by cultural, educational leaders and politicians that unless they go to college they will be forever looked upon as failures and won’t earn the money to feed their families. The nation’s elites have made it clear in every way possible that those Americans who work with their hands are somehow inferior to those who earn degrees in, well, anything.
Remember “American Graffiti,” the iconic movie about the last summer of a group of high school buddies. One of them, a popular kid in high school, doesn’t go to college like his friends. He is viewed sadly as a loser who will be left behind as his friends go on to a bigger, better and presumably more rewarding futures. One of our buddies in that summer after graduation looked at the rest of us as we prepared to head off to college and said he didn’t want to go, but wanted instead to open his own business, work with his hands and remain a part of the community in which he grew up.
He didn’t feel like a loser and wasn’t; he turned out to be one of the wealthiest and happiest of the bunch. But it was early days; by the Seventies, society would have made it clear to him that only a loser would choose the course he found so attractive. There is obviously nothing wrong with going on to college or even with pursuing knowledge for its own sake. For some that is the right path, but others may want to choose a different path and they shouldn’t be looked down on for doing so; it’s what they might prefer so they can do what they want rather than try to be what someone else thinks they should be.
The way in which our elites look at all this was on public display last year during the Democratic primaries as presidential wannabes outdid each other in arguing that everyone ought to go to college, and to facilitate just that college should be free like air, water and welfare.
Apprenticeship programs and vocational training have proven successful for many here as well as in Europe and the Trump administration should be applauded for recognizing their value. Ninety percent of those who complete apprenticeship programs find a job waiting, according to The Wall Street Journal, and those jobs start at about $60,000 a year.
There are about half a million people in such programs right now, but that compares with more than 13 million young people attending our colleges and universities, many of whom will end up living with their parents after graduation while they work nights flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s for the simple reason that they learned little during the four years it took them to be certified as a college graduate that will help them earn a living.
• David A. Keene is editor at large at The Washington Times.
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