The dominant explanation for why students aren’t graduating with technical degrees is H-1B and outsourcing. It goes like this: Because American companies send technical jobs overseas, and because they hire foreign nationals under the H-1B visa program, (both supposedly at lower cost than hiring Americans), students regard technical careers (in electronics engineering, software development, information technology) as undesirable. They believe they won’t get healthy salaries or enjoy any reasonable job security. They may be right.

But I see another trend that’s far more disturbing than the behavior of companies and students. K-12 schools seem to be de-emphasizing the fundamentals of technology. They seem to be teaching kids how to be technology consumers rather than designers. A case in point is my local school district, which recently spent over $30M to build a state-of-the-art middle school. Every classroom is wired for sound, video, and computers. Every teacher has a laptop, and big LCD displays dot the facility. The auditorium is state-of-the-art; the soundboard alone blows away what you’d find in most commercial theaters. The school is equipped with a video production facility that kids use to produce what’s described as professional-quality videos. The computer lab lets kids use sound samples to produce their own music CD’s. It’s all really great.

The trouble is, no one is teaching the kids how all this technology works, and how they can build their own.

Oh, they teach the kids how to use the technology. But no one is teaching them how to program. Or how to design simple circuits. Perhaps the most revealing indicator that the school is teaching kids to be consumers, not builders, is the total lack of a Shop. You know what I mean — Industrial Arts. What was supposed to be the Shop was dumped in favor of a nice art room. Now, I love art, but I don’t see why two arts have to compete with one another and why we can’t have both when we spend $30M.

There’s a huge, fully-equipped Home Ec room — with washer/dryers and microwave and conventional ovens where kids learn “Life Skills.” But there is nowhere to learn how to hammer a nail, cut a piece of wood, build a project, or — more important — work up a plan. Where is the mechanical drawing class? In 7th grade I realized what math was for when I had to draw a wood project to scale and in perspective — and then build it.

We are teaching our kids how to use technology, but gone are the crystal radios, home-brew pc’s, electronics and wood projects, basic auto mechanics and other hands-on classes that teach how to design it, build it, fix it, make it work from scatch. Kids aren’t taught what an operating system is, how a band saw works, how to polish the burrs off a piece of metalwork, or how to envision and draw the details of something he or she would like to build. Where does a school instill an interest in building anything? Sorry for the dour cynicism, but the kids I know are on Amazon looking for the next gadget they can buy — because the last one stopped working, and they have no idea how to fix it. Kids who want to get their hands dirty have to sign up for extra-curricular programs, like Destination Imagination, and do it at home. (Thank heaven for moms who sponsor these creativity klatches.)

Electronic Engineering Times reports that the overall number of engineering degrees awarded is dwindling. Computer engineering degrees have dropped for three consecutive years. Master’s degrees are down from about 41,000 to 37,000. While Ph.D.’s in technology had a slight bump  upwards, it is expected those, too, will drop, since the pipeline has fewer tech students in it today.

Johnny doesn’t work because Johnny isn’t developing an interest in designing or building technology — or wood projects, for that matter. Our school explains that our students are largely academic-track kids. They’re going to college, not to a vo-tech school, when they leave high school. Say what? Since when do academic kids not need to learn the fundamentals of how things work — and how to build their own stuff?

Johnny is learning to be the consummate consumer. If his iPod breaks, he’ll buy another. Someone will build it for him.

  1. Again, you hit the nail on the head!! To take auto shop the children in our town must commute out of town. Wood shop and metal shop are being phased out. Schools only have time to teach to the next big state or federal test. This means they are missing out on teaching for the biggest test of all – life (and making a decent living).

  2. [If the Mayor feels powerless, what can little ol’ me do?] I agree with you 1000% about the demise of Voc. Tech. in the American school system. Personally, I blame the “no child left a dime” [bumper sticker] act, but there certainly is much blame to go around. And I never thought about how the trend is to teach kids to _consume_ tech rather than _create_ tech. But, just to get the discussion rolling (although I should have stirred things up enough by now) I am going to throw three considerations into the pot:

    1) Where I come from, school boards are dominated by local Chamber of Commerce types. And this is the dominant attitude: that we need to know how to use the computer — someone else will set it up for us.

    2) “Everyone knows” that the public schools are beyond redemption, and salvation lies in private and charter schools. Unfortunately, these schools proudly advertise themselves as being bastions of classical liberal arts education. Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic. No need for Science or Social Studies. So things may be worse than you suggest.

    3) But, what about post-secondary schools? Won’t the Universities and JuCo’s save us? Why are tech graduates down there? My thought, is not that their students have no interest in building tech., but, that they (especially in the Junior Colleges) come into contact with recent (and not so recent) graduates, or with part-time teachers, and hear first-hand what a career in programming or engineering is all about. They are told that the Big Bucks are in Finance. And, having read as much Ayn Rand as you have, Nick, they vote with their choice of major.

    Now that I’ve purged the cynicism from my belly, let’s hope someone points out something I’ve overlooked, so I can get hopeful once again.

  3. I think another side to this is to think about what professions are the ones that kids say they want to be when they grow up?

    Are there many engineers or developers there? Is there any glory in being good in Math or Science compared to being good in sports? Maybe I’m overly cynical on this but I tend to think there is this view that sports are where tons of money and energy are spent in education while other areas aren’t necessarily given the same due.

    There is also the potential snob factor that many parents believe Johnny is going to university and will somehow magically get a good job just from having a degree which isn’t quite correct. In getting that degree there should be skills developed that employers want people to utilize like problem solving and working with others that while not taught directly should be learned indirectly and noticed by the time Johnny wants a job.

    Hopefully that didn’t come off too much like a rant but it was something I had growing up that really bothered me is how much sports was this big deal and those kids doing well academically getting almost no press in contrast.

  4. First, I disagree with the premise that this is a new or recent trend. Public primary schools have *always* been focused on academics; art, music, sports (at the primary level), shop, theater have always been subject to the whims of budgets, donors, and individual champions.

    Second, the supplanting of “traditional” shop classes with high-tech showcases merely reflects schools’ desire to ride the latest bandwagon. In the 50s and 60s, the auto industry was the high tech of the day, so schools wanted to ride that bandwagon. Today it’s LCDs and surround sound.

    Third, technology has radically changed the methods of “making stuff.” If you want a state-of-the art shop, it better have a CNC mill, laser cutter, and CAD workstations. I experienced this kind of obsolecense first-hand in high school. I was on the school newspaper, and spent two years learning all the skills of offset printing: photo screening, making full-size (11×17 inch) negatives of page folios, burning printing plates, and running the offset press. Then the district office bought an 11×17 photocopy machine. In that instant, all that equipment and skills were worthless. But our time from layout to finished product went from 3 days to 2 hours, and at lower cost.

    Finally, I believe DYI is actually on the rise. Technology has made both materials and information far more accessible. But the fundamental components have become more complex. So rather than soldering together discrete transistors, resistors, and capacitors like I did, children today build with Basic Stamps and Lego Mindstorms. The rise of hacking (i.e. customizing) existing products (“How to custom etch your iPod”) reflects this trend as well.

    One area where I would like to see schools do better is in basic financial education. Talking about money in our schools seems to be one of the last taboos.

  5. The education system in the US has been going downhill for decades. The is plenty of blame to go around, but most of it falls on the parents. If they demanded more of their children and demanded the schools really educate, it would happen. Watching what children do in other parts of the world would make them realize that children can do a lot more than we ask of them – and they are better off for doing it. Parents want their children to have it it all but they don’t want kids to have to actually do anything that might require effort (too hard for the little darlings), risk failure (might damage their little egos) or even lead to success (might make the unsuccessful ones feel bad).
    Many schools now refuse to acknowlege whatever excellence does occur because they fear that it would negatively affect the non-excellent students. It never occurs to them that seeing one student rewarded for work might motivate others to work harder.

    Working on a novel in a writing class, I had an 11-year-old girl running a home – cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc. (in 1880’s, before electricity and modern conveniences.) The entire class, including the teacher, told me this was impossible, no 11-year-old could have done it. I pointed out that my grandmother had done it at the age of 10.
    We should simply stop treating our children like fragile, incompetent idiots and help them grow into adults. We are doing them a major disfavor by being overprotective.

  6. We just got word from the educational testing services or whatever name that mafia oranization of education call themselves that they will no longer be offering or testing for computer science advanced placement (AP).
    sign of the times. Another intersting statistic is that gvt is the largest employer in America. We are in big trouble. As far as H1-B goes maybe we should outsorce our elected officials in Washington. Maybe then we could get something going in this soon to become banana republic.

  7. Ray hit the nail on the head (we Ray/Rae’s are so good!)My sister teaches Freshman Comp in Ohio and has numerous stories of parents coming in to demand better grades or defend their child’s plagiarisms. We both enjoy the fact that “privacy laws prevent us discussing your child’s work with you” will stop a parent in his tracks, even if they don’t get the subtle message – your child is now an ADULT and should be held responsible.

    As to his second paragraph, I remember as a teen reading about Elizabeth I. By the age of 5 or 6 she was fluent in half a dozen languages, doing math at a higher level than today’s middle school kids, studying astronomy, diplomacy, music, dance – I cannot remember all that was listed. In the last 50 or 60 years, cognitive development has been studied and we know that from the ages of about 2 to 5, a child gains knowledge the way they breath practically. It’s estimated that by 5, a person has learned about 85% of the vocabulary that s/he will ever have.

    So why do we, as a country, continue to offer educational “reforms” that don’t even start until a child is past the age when learning is easiest? Why is there still no universal head start? The greatest gift a parent can give to a child is to start reading to her from birth and provide an environment that supports reading, even if you have to fake it. I am always surprised when I visit a friend or am taken to someone’s home and there are no books or magazines, anywhere – even though it seems to be the case 80% or 90% of the time.

  8. I’m a PhD engineer who develops semiconductors for the communications electronics industries and I’ve seen many changes in the industry over the past 15 years.
    I hate to say it but finally it’s beginning to sink in that there’s a terrible glut of engineers and scientists in the US job market.
    Why should people put their mental and financial health at risk in fields where few opportunities exist? The hard reality – as admitted to by the Wall St Journal and still denied by most science publications, is that there are still way too many PhD scientists and engineers for too few opportunities. Look for the number of science and engineering graduates to drop even faster in the future. Sorry.

  9. I’m a Ph.D. engineer who develops scientific instruments for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. The instruments I build are shipped all over the world.

    Phil is right. There is a tremendous glut of Ph.D. scientists and engineers. Science is a nice hobby, but a lousy way to make a living.

  10. I agress with Phl and LonIslandLost. Derspite what the scientific and engineering flaks keep saying, there is a glut of scientists and engineers in this country. The easy access to H1B candidates only excaberates this problem.
    I design and build small chemical reactor systems for industrial research. It is a speciality of engineering that is not highly sought out by the majority of chemical engineers. While I have more work than I can handle, I have no illusions that I would be booted out of the door withing 10 minutes of a H1B candidtate with equal experience willing to do the job for 25%

  11. Continuation of the above post that was truncated by an errant keystorke of my size 12 fingers on my size 6 laptop computer keyboard.

    less money.
    An incident really floored me last Friday. I was trying to get out of the labs, but kept getting button holed by my internal customers. It was like a gauntlet. With the last door in sight, I could taste the three day weekend despite the fact that I was taking work home in order to meet crazy deadlines. I decided to go to the men’s room just in case the traffic on I287 would be slow. There, I ran into a co worker who asked me what college my daughter attended. I replied that she attended the University of Pennsylvania. He wanted me to clarify that it was not Penn Sate. I said no, it was Ben Franlklin’s school. Then, he broke out in a big smile. It seems his son wants to attend that school, and he asked me what my daughter was majoring in. I replied Economics and Linguistics. I asked what is you son interested in. He said Engineering, but he was doing everything he could to discourage this.
    Now, here’s the strange part. This guy was born and raised in Sri Lanka and probably came to the US on an H1B visa. In about 20 years, he also figured out that the path to upward mobility was not the one we both choose. Damn immigrants, they lean so quick.
    And FWIW, he has a PhD in Chemical Engineering.
    I have heard this anti science and engineering sentiment from a lot of US born citizens in these professions, but I never heard it from an immigrant before.
    Go figure. No wonder that about 3 out of 4 of the new post doc PhD chemists at our facility are from China.
    I can’t help but smile when I read about all these so called shortages in these professions. Since the early 90’s our acedemic institutions and industrial companys have gone overboard in de-motivating engineers and scientists, and have the unmitigated audacity to complain about the results.

  12. I’ve been reading with interest the comments posted in this thread and am left wondering why so much lies unspoken and unquestioned.

    The problems of placing key personnel in our illusory service sector economies discussed as eternal whilst the capitalist merry-go-round rolls relentlessly towards the precipice.

    Surely you people don’t still believe our pseudo egalitarian socio-economic fantasy will continue in its present form?

    By the by… Wouldn’t headhunters be better employed seeking out and removing personnel who are detrimental to the greater good of us all instead of being the slaves of avarice? Just a thought.

  13. Liam,

    Nothing continues in its present form, but capitalism is pretty cool. It feeds people and keeps them healthy. Nonetheless, we all roll toward the precipice. Preoccupation with the end ruins the middle.

    You pose an interesting idea for headhunters. Why don’t they get paid to remove dead wood. I dunno — ask employers that. It’s a good idea.

    But one can make money without be avaricious. It’s all in the texture of the soul.