When I made the jump from middle school to high school in the early 1990s, I honestly was not concerned with asking myself, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Truth be told, I was fairly certain I was headed to the big-leagues to play the hot corner for the Red Sox, but beyond that, I hadn't really thought about it too much. I don’t know that many 13- or 14-year-olds do.
From an early age, whether it came from my parents, teachers and counselors or society, it seemed like the only choice being promoted to me was to go to a good college or university and get a degree so I could get a well-paying job. There was a lot of talk about becoming financially better off than my parents and the generation before them who rose into the middle-class through work in lumber yards, shoe factories and later in computer-chip manufacturing. This push toward white-collar employment seems at odds to me with what I see in the built world around me; we are a culture of builders and doers. It feels sometimes that we've lost our way.
Today, much of our domestic manufacturing sector struggles to find the labor-force with the skill sets necessary to thrive in a modern manufacturing environment. And the promise of finding well-paying white-collar work following a bachelor’s degree or higher is not coming true for many young people graduating from our colleges and universities. I recently read Matt Crawford’s book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. What I took away is that the shortage of skilled workers we are experiencing in this country has its underpinnings in a society that has undervalued the notion of skilled manual labor in favor of the “knowledge worker.”
In the high school I attended, students were bused off in the early afternoon to a campus across town for classes in automotive technology, carpentry, welding and other trades (the same people that I pay now to fix things for me). These “trade schools” have been rebranded as “occupational” or “career and technology education centers” and there are dozens in our region. In addition, the region boasts some exceptional programs at the post-secondary level relevant to careers in the wood manufacturing field. These institutions are trying to prepare students to enter the workforce, but it is clear that the bridge from school to work must be strengthened.
Recently, the Northern Forest Center’s partnership with the Woodwork Career Alliance led to several educators and company employees being trained to administer the Woodwork Passport program in their institutions. The passport documents student or employee proficiency on woodworking machines and tools. It rewards their accomplishments with a permanent, portable record of their skills that stays with the individual throughout his or her career. This is groundbreaking recognition of skills and standards within the wood products manufacturing industry and was developed with industry participation.
I am optimistic that as the wood products industry moves forward significantly in developing and promoting a skilled workforce, we can affirm a new appreciation in our society and our regional education system for all the skilled trades.