Push for emphasis on “technical” training may be based on misunderstanding

Published 3:56 pm Thursday, September 24, 2009

Gov. Haley Barbour’s recent call for more emphasis on “technical training” in school would be laudable if it weren’t so apparent that he and others that support such an effort have little real understanding of the education needed for many jobs requiring technical skills.

Barbour may be talking about assembly line work in factories, jobs that apparently don’t require a great deal of formal education, but Mississippi has relatively few of those types of jobs and those seem to be declining nationally as much manufacturing is moved overseas.

There are other jobs requiring “technical” skills, and that job category may be growing with the development of technology, but they require a good education, especially a good math education. They appear to be jobs requiring skills more akin to those needed by the men who built the now rusting factories that were once filled with assembly line workers.

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I’m thinking specifically of the construction millwright trade, the men who set up, calibrated and fine-tuned the machinery that filled the factories. To become a journeyman millwright required a four-year apprenticeship and passing numerous tests — tests which contained lots and lots of math up through trigonometry, even some calculus.

Applying a wrench to a machine required muscle, but that muscle had better have been guided by a keen mind that had worked out the mathematical equations to properly set up the machine.

Oh, well, carpentry is easier, right? Wrong. Millwrights are also carpenters, master carpenters. Do the math to properly construct a circular stairway, or even a straight stairway, add a landing and move off in a different direction. If you can’t do the math, you endanger those who will use the stairway, even if you can get it starting and stopping in the right places. What bracing is required to carry the expected loads? How about a roof? By the way, you do understand that a carpenter’s square is a type of calculator, don’t you? Have you ever heard of a bridge square?

Lots and lots of math, high order math, is needed for most jobs that are truly technical in nature. Most technical jobs used to have governing trade unions to ensure the mastery of the skills needed to follow the trades. A great many still do, but relatively few of those trade unions operate in Mississippi and those that do are concentrated in built up areas. They aren’t found out in rural areas where so many Mississippians live.

In Mississippi and throughout much of the South, the word union is treated as a five-letter bad word because those who belittle the unions, the real trade unions, have no concept of what they are and why they exist. The union hall was where members of the trades went to find out where there were jobs.

In large cities back during the industrial age, a trade unionist, if he chose, could live in a city and often ply his trade within one factory, or he could work in several factories around the city, supporting the machinery and other elements needed to keep the production lines running and the assembly line workers busy. Or, he could do like my Uncle Bob, a construction millwright, and travel the nation, setting up new factories.

Uncle Bob is a good example for educational requirements. He had been college bound prior to World War II, the University of Illinois, to become an engineer. The war started, he joined up, came south, met my Aunt Lenore, they married, and after the war he needed to go to work, not college. With his math skills, he tested into the millwright’s union and rapidly advanced to journeyman. He and Aunt Lenore had no children and they traveled the nation as he set the machinery in factory after factory during that booming industrial time.

Uncle Bob had been educated in Illinois schools where apparently they concentrated on math, at least in those pre-war days, and he was familiar with trade unions from living in that industrial state.

If Barbour is serious about “technical” education, he needs to call in representatives of the traditional trade unions, which have evolved with the work that needs doing, and representatives of the new “trades,” with emphasis on computer technology and find what students need to learn just to qualify for an apprenticeship in the trade fields. He likely will be greatly surprised at the amount of education needed just to qualify for an apprenticeship to learn a skill. He might also want to see how the state’s community colleges and the trade unions can work together to help those that want to learn a skilled trade, something the community colleges already are doing to some extent.