Making an art of work

A diverse approach to education

11/27/2011  |  RICHARD YEAGLEY
Technical Career Options for Students

Earlier this year, Bart A. Aslin, chief executive officer, SME Education Foundation happened to see Mike Rowe, host of “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel featured in a new documentary, “The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work.” He decided to contact the director Richard Yeagley, and share perspectives on education and work.

“I think emerging technologies have exceeded the imagination of those who wish to teach, learn and apply it,” says Aslin. “We’re seeing a cosmic shift in the workplace and this new norm is causing people to reconsider diverse approaches to education. We’re moving our efforts to communities in order to better create strong partnerships between organizations, businesses and exemplary schools. We think Richard’s documentary is well aligned to help us bring industry and organization partners into the classroom. This new paradigm will allow students to better understand the relevancy of STEM curriculum and hands-on learning. Richard’s documentary provides a real-world reality check for students, teachers and parents. Furthermore; it discusses many topics related to work, intelligence and the future of skilled trades.”

My father, one of the brightest and most resourceful men I know, recently applied for a sales position within the company where he has worked for 30 years. He has been a manager, specialized technician, and implicit — but not nominal — salesperson within the medical equipment distribution company. He knows every one of his products inside out, plus he possesses the salesman’s natural gift of the gab. I am certain that he was by far the most knowledgeable and qualified applicant for the job. I was dumbfounded and fairly infuriated when he was denied a second interview because the job description required the candidate to have a college degree. This simplistic and systematic approach to hiring — one that focuses on certifications and/or degrees rather than experience — prevented this publicly listed company from hiring the most effective and value-added worker for the job. The company hired a college graduate, gaining an employee who, while versed in the lexicon of the corporate world, most likely knows nothing about the products they intend to sell.

My father’s experience indirectly illustrates why parents are channeling their children into college degrees even if they don’t achieve any specific training through these programs. If businesses are going to require an unquestioned standard — i.e. four year college degrees — for entrance into the desired occupations, then a populace seeking occupational mobility is going to follow suit. The question is whether all individuals are maximizing their learning capacity in these forms of codified educational institutions.

Individuals learn in a myriad of different ways. And much of the population does not retain information best in a classroom environment. In a globally competitive world, these experiential, non-academic learners are neglected in favor of individuals who follow the traditional academic paths of learning. Because of this organized approach, industry — mostly medium to large size businesses, public policy officials, and the public — have systematically shunned certain occupations, industries and demographics. Americans always suggest that the government should not be involved in “picking winners or losers” within the commercial landscape, but they have clearly indicated what forms of education should be financially assisted and pronounced as “first rate.”

Currently, there is an insatiable demand to obtain forms of accreditation, certification, and college degrees. This is understandable. But it can also be perniciously simplistic and categorical. I understand the motivational and intellectual “signal” a degree is supposed to provide an employer, but it also bespeaks of a type of uniformity — which I believe on a large scale decreases innovation — and can never be an unequivocal indicator of a worker’s skills and loyalty to the company. College graduates are often not “work ready” upon graduation. This increases the likelihood that their wages will not be high enough to support their educational debts. A discouraged worker might feel the need for more formal education. This in turn can lead to further debts, less people in the workforce — decrease in the participation rate — and a devaluing of the advanced education itself.

As more individuals opt to stay in school — graduate school application rates have increased by 20 percent since 2008 — there are less people participating towards economic growth and output. Some would say that when an individual delays their participation in the workforce by opting for more education, that individual is investing in their long term economic prospect, thus increasing their total participation graded by total output or value added. I agree with that comment in ordinary times; but I contend that in the current landscape, an asset bubble — the asset being one’s education — is being created.

Not only does the rising demand for higher education increase the costs involved but it also distorts its value. This debasement creates a system in which individuals spend more and more money on education in an attempt to “race to the top,” all while their obtained degrees and/or certifications are simultaneously of lesser value because more people have the same credit. This is a classic example of an asset bubble that is predicated on a feedback loop and a desire to not be left without the desired asset. This is a common case of herd mentality.

My biggest complaint about organized forms of education is that these institutions often forget that most individuals learn best through experience. In fact, most jobs require the use of practical application as a necessity for competence. Research has shown that the human brain retains new concepts more easily when constantly recalled in social interactions.

Carl Wieman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in physics and an advisor to Barack Obama, proclaims that good teaching must “de-emphasize lecture and emphasize active problem solving.” I feel that the setup of higher education is somewhat backwards: it would benefit the individual more if they had workplace experience or practical application first, and then pursued the academic concepts of their occupations.

I would suggest that a more focused and long term combination of classroom and field learning be administered. In many ways, colleges attempt to create curiosity within each student. The reality of the situation is that many young students do not have an inherent curiosity in their selected field/degree because of the lack of understanding of its applied nature within the workplace. College should not create curiosity — it should serve as a support system for curiosity that already exists.

Personally, I learned a tremendous amount more during my summer internship than I did during my classroom experiences. I never understood my industry until I experienced my industry. When I returned from my summer internship, my curiosity was much greater because of my understanding of the applied nature of my conceptual classroom learning.

The concerted emphasis in preparing students for a four year degree has resulted in a de-emphasis of technical training programs. Just when the world is becoming more technical, we have neglected the teaching of technical skills. I wouldn’t make the argument against the current form of higher learning except that it is uniformly being embraced as the best form of education for all types of industries, occupations and individuals. Such simplistic views actually harm the well being of a portion of the population.

This disconnection between educational institutions and industry needs to be addressed in a comprehensive fashion. When 34 percent of employers say they are having difficulties filling jobs — with technicians, salespeople, skilled trade workers and engineers as the hardest to find — then there is an obvious mismatch of skills desired by industry and skills/aptitudes provided to students by educational institutions.

The skills and aptitudes necessary for these jobs cannot solely be taught in a controlled classroom environment. Not to embrace hands-on, experiential learning as a crucial element of education is a travesty. With the world becoming more and more technical, it is fallacious to believe that an academic-only approach to teaching technical skills is an ideal model.

Many of the barometers that are discussed by the media and politicians are based on economic value and growth. If one continues to use that barometer as a standard reference point, then they should also support movements that intend to educate students of practical knowledge and of industry know-how. Technical skills being taught through experiential learning will add value to the individual, the company, and the country.

Richard Yeagley is the producer/director of “The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work,” an 88 minute exploratory social documentary. The documentary is a real and unflinching look at the lives and work of the modern tradesman and is an exposition into socio-economic topics related to the modern blue-collar craftsman. To learn more, visit or
. The SME Education Foundation ( is committed to inspiring, supporting and preparing the next generation of manufacturing engineers and technologists for the advancement of manufacturing education.
Comments & Ratings

  11/30/2011 12:57:34 PM
Richard Yeagley 

Thanks to SEEN magazine for publishing the article in the winter edition. Anyone who has any questions about the film or the content of the article can visit the site listed above, or contact me directly at [email protected]