What kind of education do you want?

Here’s an interesting discussion on why Apple makes iPhones in China rather than the US. It’s not just cheap labor. It’s because we don’t have an appropriately trained work force.

The U.S. can’t compete with China on wages. It can’t compete on the size of the labor force. China has had a decades-long push in its education system to train these workers; the U.S. has not. And the U.S. doesn’t have the facilities or the proximity to the Asian component manufacturers.

Speaking as someone at a liberal arts college, where we teach a broad, general approach to learning that is often abstract, I have to say I agree. There’s a place for us, but there’s also a place for vocational education, and we ought to be building an ecosystem of knowledge, where we value the two-year colleges as much as the four-year elites; liberal arts is not superior to welding and manufacturing.


  1. says

    My uncle works for a medium sized German company that makes parts for machines. They were doing pretty steady business with the USA so they thought it made sense opening a plant there. Then they encountered a problem: No trained workforce. In Germany you have regulated apprenticeships, job titles are largely protected. So you put out an add looking for an XXX and then the person applying with that title is supposed to know certain things.
    They couldn’t get those workers in the USA, so they trained them. Only once they’d trained them, General Motors would snatch them up offering much better benefits (this happened some 15 years or so ago). After a while they simply shut down the plant again. They were permanently training people, investing in their training and never got production running. Those jobs remained in Germany.

  2. Brother Ogvorbis, Fully Defenestrated Emperor of Steam, Fire and Absurdity says

    Into the 1980s, many public schools had very strong vocational/technical training. My high school, when I was a freshman and (first time) sophomore, was given a (used, clunker, POS) car by a local dealership. The school’s shop class tore the car apart, rebuilt inside and out, and sold it to raise money for a charity. (The FFA did the same thing each year with a donated tractor.) My second sophomore year, this ended. Why? The election to the school board of a man who ran a local office of a for-profit technology institute (like DeVry, but not DeVry). The schools still had auto shop, wood shop, etc, but the major stuff was no concentrated only at the county VoTech which had more students and a slightly smaller budget.

    Vocational & Technical education in the US has gone almost totally post-high school and for profit. DeVry, McCann, etc, are making a bundle charging for what used to be provided at our (taxpayer) expense in public schools. Just as for-profit universities (University of Phoenix, for example) are taking on more academic subjects for profit.

    And, as robertbaden states, US companies did provide in-house training. Which cost money. Money that came out of investor’s pockets. So they have fobbed it off on the for-profit VoTech institutes. Which costs more. But the company isn’t paying it, the student/worker is.

    As soon as someone saw education as a way to make a quick buck, using government guaranteed loans, the die was cast.

  3. Brother Ogvorbis, Fully Defenestrated Emperor of Steam, Fire and Absurdity says


    Another factor is the slow demolition of unions in the US. They had a vested interest in building up a qualified workforce.

    Damn. Forgot about the unions.

    But it does feed into my hypotheosis that any conservative proposal will either damage unions, throw a bone to the religious right, or transfer public monies to the wealthiest 1%. Or a combination of them.

  4. erichoug says

    I actually work in manufacturing here in the states and I have to say I can only partially agree with this.

    I do feel that the US focuses entirely too much effort on turning out workers for careers that no longer exist, and I agree that we could do a lot more to focus on tech. But, there are a lot of things that you simply have to learn on the job.

    A trade school isn’t going to teach you how to install and set up a blown film extruder, or a textile calender. When i was in georgia, the told me that the guy who sets up their looms is literally the only guy in the world who does it. He shows up at 6AM, works till noon, drinks a 6 pack of beer and finishes up before 5. Again, literally the only guy who does it. So while a lot of it can be handled through education and training, a lot of it requires a knowledge base built up through on the job training. this is something we have lost by exporting our manufacturing jobs and something we wont get back soon.

  5. acroyear says

    Which went first, the two-year trade school degree, or the jobs it would have supported?

    My understanding of the last 30 years is that the jobs disappeared first (thank you iso-9000), and a 4-year degree became the magical must-have requirement on a resume for the jobs that were left.

    Restoring the 2-year college isn’t going to happen if the jobs aren’t promised first. Apple can make these claims all they want, but they outsourced decades ago, along with everybody else, and are as guilty of the current situation as every other manufacturer here.

  6. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    ideally, (impractically, i know) we want education to teach people how to think. period. So that entering a job, they can be told the task and quickly figure out themselves how to accomplish it, with only minimal additional training required. Unfortunately, too many see education as a kind of manufacturing process where students are produced who know exactly the tasks they will be presented. This used to be okay when many factories wanted workers to man the assembly lines and perform repeated tasks endlessly until retirement. With technology continually advancing and products requiring continual “updates”, All employees must be in a continual learning mode as they produce the current product.
    in my story scenario, I’m currently writing (in my head)…

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    funny that Apple should be the subject given the recent mention of Apple by the Trumpster. Trumpet would force Apple to manufacture all its products in America. He claims doing so will drain China of all the revenue it is stealing from us, in order to return it to American workers (To Make America Great Again).
    Regardless of all the reasons it is unreasonable to attempt this, I guess this is Apple’s response to that blowhard. They’re not in China for only the cheap labor, but the more educated workforce.
    hmm. Could they not have answered blowhard with numbers rather than insulting our education system? It is not perfect, and can be improved, but… Apple not helping.

  8. says

    slithey tove, I had a student holiday worker in my lab who was capable of learning fast almost any job required. But he was exceptional, he had an IQ over 140 and he was really really smart (“Wunderkind” – he entered university at the age of 15, in Germany). He was that good, that I contacted him multiple times for holiday work, because he has done twice as much work as some others we had and we could discuss science in spare time.

    But he was also very clumsy typical “nerd” in some aspects. It was not that he did not understand the tasks, he just did not have developed the fine motorics that was needed to fulfill some of them. It was actually for the first time in his life he held a scalpel, a screwdriver and a boring machine. The only basic machine he could work with without instructions was PC.

    So based on my experience it is actually needed not to only learn how to think and learn and solve problems, it is also needed to learn some basic and universal manual tasks. Soldering for example is to my knowledge not that easy to learn to do quickly and correctly – there are still manual skills with broad use that take realatively long time to master and can be mastered only throught actually doing them.

  9. whheydt says

    In between the vocational training and production jobs and the liberal arts there is a need for people with technical knowledge to develop new products–both the know how to invent them and that ability to reduce ideas to the practical. And thereby hangs a tale,,,

    This actually involves the UK, but I think the situation being discussed is largely similar.

    A PhD candidate at Cambridge was put to work reading the resumes of potential CS students. Having grown up tinkering with BBC Micro computers, he was appalled by how little the prospective students knew and that it was getting worse. So he (and some like-minded friends) decided to see if they could do something about this.

    The result was a cheap ($35), education-focused singe-board computer (SBC) called the Raspberry Pi. The idea being that the Pi could be turned over to kids to learn about computers. IT runs Linux, so all the tools for learning programming are there, as are connections available to do “physical computing”…attaching external, “real world” devices for control and communications.

    While the uptake in education has been a bit slow (though it’s happening, in spite of the best efforts of large US companies that want to lock schools into their products, e.g. Microsoft, Apple, Google, etc.), the hobbyist, tinkerer, “maker” community has embraced the Pi with the (to quote James Burke) all the enthusiasm of a drunkard in a brewery. As a result, in bit under 4 years (the original Pi launched on 29 Feb. 2012), about 8 million of them have been sold.

    One of the side consequences of this is that the Pis are actually manufactured in the UK, specifically at a Sony contract factory in Wales (the Pi being the first computer made in the UK in 30 years).

    The most recent version of the Pi (launched in late November 2015) is a very small board with a list price of $5 (!) called a Pi Zero. Supplies are very tight so far, but it’s a simply amazing device.

  10. Owlmirror says

    More from the link in the OP about the difference in trained specialists in the US and China:

    I mean, you can take every tool and die maker in the United States and probably put them in a room that we’re currently sitting in. In China, you would have to have multiple football fields.

    Also, this:

      • Pre-mutated products: where did all those “hoverboards” come from?

    Those bowtie-shaped “motorized self-balancing two-wheeled scooters” you see in the windows of strip-mall cellphone repair shops and in mall-kiosks roared out of nowhere and are now everywhere, despite being so new that we don’t even know what they’re called.
    This week’s Planet Money (MP3) travels to Shenzhen, China, “the world’s factory,” and tries to figure out where this all started. As near as they can tell, a Chinese engineer in the USA successfully kickstarted a self-balancing board, the videos were seen by engineers in China, who figured out a much cheaper way to make a similar board (they use a clever system of linkages between motors instead of accelerometers and gyroscopes) using commodity parts, and factories started to tool up to make the boards, selling them through Alibaba and importer/exporters.


    Bernstein is interested in this phenomenon as “memeufacturing” — a couple of social-media stars (or garden-variety celebs) post viral videos of themselves using an obscure gadget, and halfway around the world, factories shut down their e-cig lines and convert them, almost overnight, to hoverboard manufacturing lines. Bernstein cites a source who says that there are 1,000 hoverboard factories in South China — and another one, Chic Smart, outside of Shanghai, that’s threatening to sue all the rest for patent infringement (good luck with that).

    The speed at which the retooling took place is baffling. South China’s factories have the nimbleness born of precarity (retool or die!) but even by those standards, 1,000 factories is an incredible number: two factories a day since the first (?) hoverboard shipped.


    There was never a moment at which all the bus-shelters and billboards touted an ideal, original hoverboard that the bottom-feeders started to nibble away at. The pre-mutated hoverboards arrived without a name (they still don’t have a name — I’m calling them hoverboards, but there are lots of other things that their riders call them). They arrived without an original shape, aspect ratio, size, charge-time, or color scheme.

    Is there anyone who really thinks that that kind of incredibly rapid manufacturing change could happen anywhere else?

  11. moarscienceplz says

    Is there anyone who really thinks that that kind of incredibly rapid manufacturing change could happen anywhere else?

    1000 factories making a product that can combust spontaneously? Now, that’s what I call progress!

  12. Owlmirror says


    1000 factories making a product that can combust spontaneously?

    You mean, batteries?

    Say, doesn’t PZ have an anecdote about batteries and spontaneous combustion?

    (NB: Yes, I’ve seen that video.)

  13. markgisleson says

    Virtually every two-year college in the Midwest offers tool and die training.

    This scandal speaks to the massive layoffs in the ’80s when many machine shops closed their doors. Union busting killed the job shops, using imported materials to undercut even non-union shops. It’s not that we don’t have tool and die makers, it’s that we have so few EXPERIENCED tool and die makers.

    Everything that’s wrong with our economy was made wrong by greed.

  14. brett says

    Even when you figure that the Chinese labor force is more than five times as large as the US’, that’s still a huge discrepancy. I’d definitely chalk that one up to the Chinese education system churning out a ton of workers with skills that can be trained for manufacturing.

  15. jacksprocket says

    “When i was in georgia, the told me that the guy who sets up their looms is literally the only guy in the world who does it. He shows up at 6AM, works till noon, drinks a 6 pack of beer and finishes up before 5. Again, literally the only guy who does it.”

    That doesn’t sound like a sustainable policy in anything but the shortest term. Assuming they really are the only people in the world with that kind of loom, they have a little problem if he dies, retires, or kills the boss’s cat, screws his wife and granny, and demands the entire turnover of the company or he quits.

  16. Lithified Detritus says

    ‘The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.’

    John W. Gardner

  17. says

    I reject any arguments built around the neoliberal premise of competitiveness – as though children were born to serve (or be exploited by) governments or corporations. It’s not our responsibility to prepare young people to be more efficiently used by these forces. It’s our responsibility to fight to create a world in which future generations will gain knowledge and skills that will enable them (all of them) to live and work in ways that fulfill their own needs and contribute to the fulfillment of local and global needs while causing the least harm possible. This will never be compatible with the demands of capitalism, corporations, or the US or Chinese governments, so I certainly don’t want an educational system that feeds them workers/soldiers/technicians/”innovators”/”leaders”/… Children don’t belong to them.

    It’s interesting how scientific and technical skills so often seem to be excluded these days from leftwing critique. That wasn’t the case in the 1940s-1960s. Then there were many people calling, under very difficult circumstances, for a different approach to science and scientific institutions. Now, the AAAS blatantly champions science and science education as elements of (US/corporate) competitiveness and hardly anyone blinks an eye. It’s tragic.

  18. says

    A “poem” I made from Owlmirror’s quote above. I call it


    Planet money
    the world’s factory
    nimbleness born of precarity
    a clever system
    using commodity parts
    bus shelters

  19. consciousness razor says

    It’s not just cheap labor.

    The people there (and the things they do) are just as valuable. We simply don’t write (or maintain/enforce) laws which are necessary to protect workers, wherever they happen to be, only ones that support giant corporations like Apple which can exploit this kind of “freedom” that nobody else has — but here I go talking as if a corporation is a “somebody”…. The basic point is that if our concept of human rights only extends to the borders (though of course it’s dysfunctional for most inside them anyway), then we don’t have a concept of human rights, just a concept of American rights for (some of) the “non-cheap” individuals who are so exceptionally American. And fuck everybody else, probably yourself too while you’re at it.

    Also, what SC said in #20. It’s hard to imagine why I should give a fuck about the USA’s competitions with China, because I’m not a nation, nor do I know anybody who is one. We make this society, and its government is structured and employed by us to do as we want, not the other way around. The only reason it could be broken is because we are. But SC is certainly right to point out the fact that we do not belong to them, and thinking that way is not at all constructive. I don’t work in order to make this a better country than some other one (or to make the corporation-which-runs-my-life better than its competitor-who-owns-somebody-else). I do it because I’m a person who’s trying to find some way to have a meaningful life.

    What, for instance, are we supposed to do about the fact that our workforce is smaller than China’s — make more babies for the Fatherland until we meet the quota?? What are we supposed to do about people who aren’t interested in getting the “appropriate training” to match Tim Cook’s desires, or those who won’t excel in some particular line of work, if we should drive the economy back in that direction somehow regardless of what such people want out of their lives?

  20. numerobis says

    The people who ran this kickstarter and other people I know who ran kickstarters didn’t go to China to save labour cost — typically they do the labour themselves. They go there to find suppliers. Eventually, once they’re more established, they can benefit from the cheap labour, but it’s a long time before they can build mutual trust with their suppliers to get that kind of relationship set up.