Training a New Generation of Skilled Workers

For many years, U.S. manufacturers have lamented the shortage of job applicants with the skills needed to work in modern manufacturing. The old manufacturing jobs - rote repetition on an assembly line - are gone and are not coming back. We need bright young people who can handle sophisticated machinery and computers, but they are in short supply and few of them seem aware of the opportunities available in manufacturing.

Jerry Jasinowski, former President of the National Association of Manufacturers, writes a regular blog about economic and manufacturing issues. He recently penned one suggesting that old-fashioned apprenticeships are part of the solution.

I believe he is on to something. Apprenticeships are an excellent term to apply to how the U.S. army has filled its ranks over the years. Of course, learning discipline and how to shoot guns is a basic part of it, but most army jobs are demanding specialties that have little direct contact with the battlefield. A modern army, like a modern manufacturing company, is a very sophisticated operation demanding a variety of skills and knowledge.

In the army, we give applicants an in-depth testing to determine where their strongest skills and interests lie. To the extent possible, we assign them to where they are most likely to succeed, and then provide them with advanced training in their field. A key part of that is close one-on-one interaction with veteran non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who give them hands-on training until they know it backwards and forwards.

But the U.S. army, like manufacturing, is today dealing with a generation of young people who come ill-equipped with practical skills. Our foreign competitors begin to sort young people out about the eighth grade level to determine who should go on to higher education and who should learn practical skills. We used to do that, providing basic vocational training to students, but that has gone by the wayside. Our schools today are focused almost entirely on youngsters who are college bound and that is absurd. Many of them are simply not academically inclined and many who do acquire sheepskins find little opportunity in the workplace.

Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Down through the ages young people have learned valuable skills as apprentices -- working with older people who know the ropes and also convey the basic values of discipline, cooperation and commitment that underpin the effectiveness of any enterprise. It works in manufacturing and it works in the military. We need to get back to that approach.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.