“Parents are making their kids go to college,” Rintala said. “College doesn’t equip them for anything but a liberal-arts degree and how to be a barista anymore. . . . There’s a lot of people out there with college degrees who just can’t find a job. They just don’t have the skills.”
If there’s been a cultural shift away from manufacturing and toward academic achievement, look to the government, says Lindsey Burke, Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.
“So much of it is the continued push to increase federal subsidies to incentivize students to go get a four-year degree when it might not be the right fit,” she said.
The federal government has made access to student loans easier than ever before. Since 1982, the number of federal education subsidies and Pell grants has increased by 475 percent, Burke said. Programs once targeted at increasing the number of low-income students have been expanded to include many middle-class children. That’s driven up college costs, saddled graduates with high debt, and deflated the value of a four-year degree. Furthermore, many in the manufacturing sector say, it’s made young people turn up their noses at good manufacturing jobs.
Meanwhile, the manufacturing sector is adjusting, trying to come up with private-sector solutions, says Tracy Tenpenney, vice president of sales and marketing at Tailored Label Products, a Wisconsin-based company that manufactures stickers for everything from biomedical supplies to outdoor power equipment.
Tailored Label Products participates in the local Second Chance program, which works with high-school sophomores who have fallen behind track for graduation. Tailored Label Products holds classes for these students on its premises and sponsors some of them. The kids spend two hours in formal classes, then spend six hours working with a local manufacturer and learning the trade. Many Second Chance students end up graduating on time after all, leaving not only with a diploma but also with marketable skills — and sometimes a job. This year, Tailored Label Products is funding a college scholarship for a Second Chance alumnus to attend a local trade school.
“I think people are assuming kids aren’t attracted to manufacturing,” Tenpenney said. “I firmly believe that kids are attracted to being employed coming out.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.