Workforce education and the future of U.S. manufacturing

Ready to talk politics? No? Me neither. Instead, let’s talk about what should be a non-partisan goal: creating more jobs for more Americans.

In particular, let’s talk about manufacturing jobs. Since 2000, the United States has lost 5 million of them. Americans who once held these jobs feel rightly left out of our economic future.

The decline of manufacturing can seem insulting, even mystifying, given our national obsession with things. From the cotton gin and the textile mill, to the telephone and television, to trains, planes, automobiles and more, American life has been defined by the stuff we make and use.

We still use stuff in this country, now more than ever, but we don’t make it anymore, at least not like we once did. Exhibit A: the Apple iPhone.

C’mon Apple!

With all that said, we shouldn’t be surprised Apple became a target during last year’s election.

After all, if Apple is a modern success story, the role of U.S. manufacturing in that success is writ small on the back of every phone: “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China.”

From Donald Trump came a blunt demand: make your stuff here. A similar sentiment could be found on the other end of the political spectrum, from candidate Bernie Sanders.

You can’t say Apple hasn’t tried. The Mac Pro is assembled in Texas. And the company asked its two Chinese iPhone manufacturers, FoxConn and Pegatron, to consider making the phones in the United States.

Pegatron flat-out refused, while Foxconn is looking into it. A start, perhaps, but should we hold our breath?

Making Stuff in the 21st Century

The loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs has many causes and is immune to quick fixes.

iPhones epitomize today’s advanced manufacturing: nimble, sophisticated, globalized, and capable of transforming raw materials into a slick finished product with astonishing efficiency.

And, the factories that produce them cannot be “brought back” because they were never here in the first place. Trade deals, tariffs, and taxes won’t matter without the necessary infrastructure.

Making iPhones here would be a daunting task.

From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, it’s doable—if we’re okay with huge investments in new facilities and a higher price tag for the device. Still, there are more hurdles.

A Smart Phone Needs Smart Workers

Besides expensive facilities, the other key to iPhone manufacturing is the work force.

Ah! Now you’re thinking we’re going to talk about cheap labor. And why China makes our phones. Not exactly. Wages are important, but not as crucial as education.

In other words, the iPhone deal breaker is primarily a lack of skills, not high wages. Steve Jobs said as much, and so has current Apple CEO Tim Cook, along with many others.

But not so fast, Apple. If an iPhone skills gap exists, let’s bridge it. How do we train workers for our brave new world of U.S. iPhone production?

Community Power

Academic communities are valued cornerstones of traditional higher education. But they are—by their nature—exclusive. It’s our community colleges who turn outward to serve local populations.

These two-year institutions play the role of stepping stone for coveted four-year degrees, but they also provide workforce development. Ironically, their non-academic missions have spurred innovations that four-year schools should envy.

While automation has eliminated countless factory jobs, well-paying jobs remain. Yet they require math, writing, and problem-solving chops, not to mention deep computer literacy.

Community colleges have been stepping up to meet the educational challenges of advanced manufacturing. They might also help train our iPhone workers.

Educating the Next-Generation Worker

Next Generation Learning Challenges is an ambitious initiative to transform all levels of our education system. Across the community-college landscape, you’ll find many of its prescriptions for change already being implemented:

  • Competency-based education (CBE): Instead of accruing seat-time, students master clearly defined competencies drawn from industry standards, and demonstrate mastery through observable evidence of learning.
  • Micro-credentials and personalized learning: When curriculum is broken down into discrete, standalone goals, students can choose from these credentials to plot their own learning paths, completed at their own pace.
  • Authentic learning activities: Students learn best when they attempt project-based assignments that closely approximate real-world scenarios, especially for workforce development.

Community colleges are team players. They partner with companies to ensure program goals align with employer needs, and they collaborate with each other to establish shared frameworks for assessment.

Training Workers by Design

Design thinking is another element in next-gen education. It involves applying a modern design ethic—user-focused, solution-based, iterative—to teaching and learning.

Apple, surely, has got design-thinking mojo to spare. So let’s imagine Apple collaborates with community colleges to develop a training program. It might look like this:

  • Curriculum is based on competencies and micro-credentials. Students complete authentic iPhone-making projects in environments modeling iPhone facilities.
  • Students personalize their learning, making decisions informed by schedule, ability, skills tied to specific phone components, and career advancement.
  • Like the iPhone, the program keeps evolving, to best support both new product design challenges and worker needs.

Could this happen? Could Apple’s contribution to American life go beyond designing cool products, to helping teach our workers how to make them?

C’mon Apple!

There are other devices besides the iPhone and other companies besides Apple. But as any politician will tell you, appearances matter. The iPhone is everywhere.

More than a hundred years ago, Henry Ford introduced the virtuous circle: mass production tied to mass consumption, auto workers making the cars they bought.

Even if the old days of manufacturing won’t be coming back, maybe we can return to that virtuous circle, iPhone as Model T.

We make the stuff we buy. And our workforce education advances in step with our products.

We’re smart people. We can build smart phones.