What U.S. Education Can Learn From China's Factories

China's mammoth industrial engine is easily fed by mid-level technical workers, a class of labor America increasingly lacks



American education has a secular faith: excellence. Everybody is a potential star; most liberals and conservatives agree on that, although their ideas about the goals of excellence may diverge. And they consider attrition a sign of deficiency. It counts significantly on the U.S. News ratings, and one of the distinctive things about most of the highest-ranked schools is the large proportion of students who complete their degrees.

The New York Times' analysis of the offshore production of iPhones and other consumer electronics tells a somewhat different story. China has soared less because of its top engineers -- although some are undoubtedly outstanding, a U.S. technical education is still prestigious there -- thank thanks to another tier unfamiliar in the States:

Apple's executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company's analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.

In China, it took 15 days.

Companies like Apple "say the challenge in setting up U.S. plants is finding a technical work force," said Martin Schmidt, associate provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In particular, companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor's degree. Americans at that skill level are hard to find, executives contend. "They're good jobs, but the country doesn't have enough to feed the demand," Mr. Schmidt said.

In other words, China has sergeants of industry, and we don't. A lot depends, of course, on economic stages. For many rural and working-class families in a developing country, even low-level engineering work may be a great step in life. But maybe we can learn something from the Chinese system. To succeed, a program for producing mid-level industrial engineers here couldn't stigmatize the program. It would need a positive spin, a two-year technical certificate followed by hands-on industrial work with the possibility of returning for more advanced professional degrees. There are lots of talented young people who love hands-on challenges as soon as possible. The real question is whether and how they can be assured that when they're ready, the U.S. jobs will be there.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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