Dick Jones, Center Specialist

February 14, 2018

This week I spent a few days with my five-year-old grandson, ManufacturingSheamus, who is enjoying Kindergarten. As an educator with over 40 years of experience working in schools, I enjoy observing the learning experiences of my grandchildren matching these with the best practices I have promoted. One afternoon Sheamus brought home from school this large object he described as his new machine. It appeared to be this stranger concoction of cracker boxes, milk cartons, water bottles, straws and lots of tape. Sheamus excitedly shared a long story of what he imagined this machine could do. He finished by stating, “ I like working on machines.” I was pleased that Sheamus’ teachers encouraged this activity to creatively build an object out recycled trash to support his story. I hope as he goes through school he is continuously encouraged with similar experiences to develop his interests in creativity and design.

The experience with my grandson reminded me how important it is for students to have early school experiences to shape their interests and talents. With our recent efforts to impose excellence in foundational skills in math and reading, learning is too often reduced to rote memorization and test taking. The “college for all” crowd chant, “college begins in Kindergarten,” believing it is never too early to get students ready for higher education, even if it means sacrificing other learning experiences. Kindergarten is time to feel you can learn through play and build any “machine.”

At the other end of the K-12 learning continuum, CTE administrators and teachers passionately advocate for more students to expand their future opportunities by acquiring technical skills even if college is one their goals. CTE provides further opportunities to hone interests and discover talents instead of simply earning diplomas and degrees without a real purpose. CTE advocates struggle to get this message across that completing CTE is not a lower path to learning, but it is a broader highway to opportunity.

The process for students to consider CTE later in high school begins with experiences at early ages. The currently popular “maker movement” with all levels of students is a refreshing example of engaging activities that encourage design and creativity. A recent report, Attracting the Next Generation of Students by the Manufacturing Institute surveyed over 50,000 CTE students and provides insight into how students choose careers and CTE. The most important factor was students own interest and experience (63%). Interest and experience were far more important than parents, family or teachers.

Manufacturing is key to the strong economy. A study by the Economic Policy Institute confirms the following regarding manufacturing:
It is the largest and most important sector of the U.S. economy
It supports 1.4 additional jobs for every one job directly employed in manufacturing.
It pays workers a wage premium over non-manufacturing workers
It accounts for more than 60% of U.S. exports.

Manufacturing is often stereotyped as routine low skilled work pushing levers on a machine or snapping plastic parts together. Those routine types of manufacturing have migrated to parts of the world where labor is cheap. In contrast, the growing jobs in U.S. manufacturing are high skilled requiring problem-solving, creativity and design skills. CTE leaders and teachers should embrace this growth in new manufacturing and reach out to students and teachers in early grades (even in Kindergarten) to provide students with experiences which help them discover interests and hopefully more students adding CTE to their school resume.