Loss of American manufacturing capability to low-wage countries is but one part of the overall problem with the U.S. economy. The other part consists of a shortage of skilled workers, given that a high school diploma is no longer adequate for many manufacturing jobs. Brooklyn’s Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) is the most recent incarnation of an old but nonetheless timely idea.
The concept first appeared in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s protagonist, Hank Morgan, creates so-called Man Factories whose purpose is to “turn groping and grubbing automata into men.” The story doesn’t delve into details, but the context of the Man Factory suggests that it teaches civics, including ideals of freedom and democracy, in addition to literacy and job skills.
We have found no evidence that Henry Ford met Mark Twain or was influenced by A Connecticut Yankee, but the Henry Ford Trade School was the first real-world counterpart of the Man Factory. It was not what we currently think of as a trade or vocational school, but rather a synergy of classroom and hands-on application. As described by the Henry Ford Trade School Alumni Association:
Classroom time was divided between customary high school subjects and plant shops, which served as applied learning laboratories.
… Academic textbooks of the time were insufficient to support Ford’s model of integrated learning. Trade School instructors developed their own materials, taking the innovative step of incorporating shop-related problems.
… Academic study focused on mathematics, science, English, mechanical drawing, shop theory auto mechanics, and safety. Boys also studied civics and economics to prepare them for the responsibilities of citizenship. Field trips to the Ford Motor Co. developed first-hand knowledge of mechanical principles for parts production.
Our own experience in high school and college was that it is far easier to learn material when there is an identifiable application for it. We did not do well in theory for the sake of theory, but as soon as we could see a practical use for the theory in question, our comprehension (and grades) improved quickly. Incorporating shop-related problems into the textbooks showed readers how they could use the knowledge to actually build or make something, as opposed to learning theory for its own sake.
Here is the solution to one of many part-geometry exercises that the Henry Ford Trade School published in the company newspaper in 1922. It was apparently expected that any graduate, or even upperclassmen, would be able to solve it and problems like it.
Ford added that his international supply chain made geography far more interesting and easier to learn. Distant countries became, for example, sources of natural rubber as opposed to abstract places on a map. The education in civics and economics was meanwhile certainly consistent with the ideals of the Connecticut Yankee's Man Factory. Ford claimed that a graduate of his trade school could then easily go on to college, or earn higher wages than most college graduates even if he decided not to bother with college. The school’s Alumni Association adds, “Graduates of the Trade School were so much in demand they were seldom without jobs, even during the depths of the Great Depression. Want ads in local papers advertising for skilled tradesmen often included the note ‘Henry Ford Trade School graduates preferred.’”
This suggests that there is actually an off-the-shelf model with which to overhaul the United States’ educational system, and at least one public school seems to have adopted it. Time’s Rana Foroohar reports in “Schools that Mean Business” that P-TECH offers a science and technology curriculum that gives graduates the job skills they need to work in modern factories. P-TECH is so intensive, in fact, that the graduate finishes not with a diploma but with an associate’s degree.
It is not surprising that IBM is supporting this initiative because it also introduced a program known as workstation ownership (WSO) more than 20 years ago. Production workers were offered community college educations to better equip them to take full responsibility for a process, including maintenance and quality as well as production. It was apparently clear even then that a standard high school education was not up to the needs of high-technology manufacturing.
The overall lesson here is that proven methods are available to provide the United States with a pool of skilled workers that can perform the high-technology jobs of today and the future, and there is no reason not to adopt these methods throughout the country. Alumni of Ford’s trade school should be asked to provide even more details on how it worked. The fact that its graduates could get jobs even during the Great Depression more than speaks for itself.