Darrin Webb, Mississippi’s state economist, tweeted Tuesday about an interesting story from the Wall Street Journal that he said highlighted how education is increasingly needed in manufacturing jobs.
The national newspaper found that within three years American manufacturers will employ more college graduates than workers with a high school degree or less. That’s never happened before.
One of the causes is how much more complicated factories have become. Rather than humans doing the grunt work, it’s now robots. The people inside need to know how to control and fix those devices, hence the need for greater education.
“You used to do stuff by hand,” Erik Hurst, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, was quoted as saying in the story. “Now, we need workers who can manage the machines.”
This is an interesting trend from Mississippi’s standpoint. The state was once nearly completely agricultural, and then transformed itself by being very successful at attracting factories in the mid-20th century because it had much cheaper labor than up North. Up until the 1990s nearly every small Mississippi town had a plant where workers made everything from underwear to picture frames.
But as presidential candidate Ross Perot famously quipped in 1992, there was a “giant sucking sound” of jobs going south to Mexico from America as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Not only that, but even without NAFTA low-skilled jobs would have migrated to areas where workers in China, India and Southeast Asia make pennies on the dollars compared to American workers. There’s just no way for U.S. manufacturers to compete on making things that don’t require much skill.
But the flip side has been that American manufacturers have capitalized on their abilities to make more complicated products better than they do overseas. So the labor they employ need better technology skills than they did in the past.
Manufacturing jobs are what every community wants to attract. That’s because they take a raw product, shape it into something more valuable, then sell it outside that community, bringing in new dollars to the area. And the wages in manufacturing are higher than in other sectors like service, tourism and warehousing.
But now getting those kind of jobs is going to take an educated workforce, not just a cheap one.
It was interesting during this year’s gubernatorial campaign in Mississippi that one of the few things that all the candidates seemed to agree on was the need for more vo-tech education. Preparing students to work at a factory doesn’t necessarily require a four-year academic degree, but it does require specialized training and expertise. So high school vo-tech centers and community colleges can provide that at a low price to students, and the job opportunities are plentiful.
Mississippi seems to be making positive strides in this regard. The Marion County Carl Loftin Career & Technology Center does a lot of really interesting things that prepare students, who come from all four high schools in the county, for jobs.
But my fear is that because of both the need for skilled laborers and the problems caused by college debt that we as a society have forgotten the value of a four-year college education. The goal of the university is to teach students how to think and solve problems; ultimately that’s more valuable, as proven by higher wages over the course of a career, than just teaching them technical skills.
We need more people who understand the value of education and how learning can expand the mind, opening up new possibilities for us. Manufacturers know that, and it’s the key lesson that Mississippians need to grasp to turn around our economy.
Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (601) 736-2611.