Tim Cook is right

There has been a lot of criticism of Tim Cook's 60 Minutes comment that the US lacks the vocational skills to host the scale of manufacturing that the Apple has in China. The commentators that I have read do not understand that for every multiple of manual laborers you need a skilled laborer. A manufacturing line does not work without having skilled and experienced designers and maintainers. The less manufacturing that happens in the US the less we have those skills and experiences. Not to mention the concomitant need of local suppliers of raw materials, parts, and consultative or otherwise specialized skills. The world might be a global market, but manufacturing is a local activity.

For a specific data point, look to your school district and see how much vocational education is being funded. Do you see that where once your school district had its own vocation school or track in High School and now that has been replaced with a single regional vocational school? Do you see that the remaining high school "shop" classes in High School metal, wood, automobile, etc have been underfunded and full-time faculty are now part-time? Do you hear the school administration's mantra what "fewer students want this education" and then ask yourself, "why would this generation's interests be vastly different than any previous generation's interests?" We see the same mantra and consequences in music, the visual arts, and the performance arts programs.

Tim Cook is right.


Tom Hoffman said...

Cook is wrong insofar as he suggests that the main driver of this problem is schools. If manufacturing is leaving the country, it does not make sense to train students for jobs in manufacturing. It does not make sense to pay to go to school to learn how to do jobs that might leave at any time. If Apple had kept its manufacturing in the country, it would have skilled machinists already.

It especially doesn't make sense to train yourself to do a job where combining a technical skill and a physical skill (as far as I can see, a lot of this stuff is like programming and physically maintaining a machine) pays less than just being a programmer. I may be wrong about that, but that's how it looks from the outside, which is important if you're trying to attract people into a field.

Andrew Gilmartin said...

I am not calling for industry specific training physical skill training, but rather a training around manipulating the physical world both intellectually and actually. It is not enough to input and 3D print a part, you must assembling it into a working machine. I am amazed at the number of teenagers who have not used a utility knife. Have not learned to cut away from the body. Have not learned how to apply pressure to the end of a bleeding finger. Have not learned how to hold and move their body to shape a wooden spoon with a rasp or waltz with a partner. This knowledge is part of a full education.

If you look at the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages you will see that there are some 17.8M construction (6.5M) and manufacturing jobs (12.3M) in this country. Not all will be physical labor, but the vast majority of them are. Compare that to the 2.7M information jobs and some percentage of the 19.6M business services jobs, say 20% (based on my professional experience), and you can see that we only have some 6.2M programming jobs. So, while you are right that today you can make more money programming than machining there are far fewer of those jobs. In a similar vein, you might also ask why we produced so many teachers for so few jobs?

Aside: The profession of programming is going to change radically in the coming decade. The high pay, high hours jobs are going to be replaced with a standard work week and pay in accordance with other technical professionals. I suspect we will also see the reemergence of collective bargaining. So, while this does not negate your comment about pay it does level it a bit.

Tom Hoffman said...


I don't think we actually disagree here. Cook just takes the easy way out and blames education for what is fundamentally caused by larger economic, technical, and social forces. Essentially I agree with Andy Grove here: http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/magazine/content/10_28/b4186048358596.htm#p1

Matt Caron said...

A couple of thoughts:

Your impressions on schools are presumably shaped by RI schools. RI schools pretty much universally suck. Fortunately, not all schools are that way. Here in Upstate New York, there is a heavy emphasis on vocational training opportunities. This is run through the BOCES program (the local Cooperative Extension). Students so enrolled take normal classes in the morning, have lunch, then are bussed to the BOCES campus. There, they do more hands on things - stuff like teach kids to run excavation equipment, work on cars, etc. This is one of the reasons for moving here - it's a small school district, with graduating classes smaller than my "elite college prep" school, yet offer stuff like that BOCES program, and more AP classes than my high school (sometimes even with just 3 people).

I attribute this difference to the more rural nature of the community. My neighbor, for example, is a carpenter. His son, whom I've watched work on cars, quads, and ATV has a BS with a focus on nanotechnology, did an internship at Global Foundries (you know, the AMD chip fab spinoff), a semester in China), and is now working somewhere in that industry (I don't recall exactly where). I still see him heading off with his pickup, a dirt bike in the back, and a toolbox in case things break. Here, all practical skills are valued, redneck is not an insult, and people like to fix things as a hobby.

And a lot of professions are going to change in the next decade. I have no idea what job market my kids will inherit. My plan is to prepare them with as broad a base of skills as I can manage, which will ideally cover everything from Mad Max to the Singularity.

Right now we're working on ABC's and assembling Brio train tracks - but they do like to try and fix things, and Miles finds all the switches on all the electronic toys.

Andrew Gilmartin said...

Tom, I agree that we have far more in common than not. The CBS interview was mostly a positive publicity piece for Apple. And in all practicality how can you do anything but a black & white presentation in 20 minutes concerning this large, global, and multifaceted company? CBS chose an almost beached white presentation -- "suicide nets" notwithstanding.

Matt, I have spent my entire adult life in RI (my youth was spend mostly in England and Virginia) and I am becoming ever more aware of and concerned with my provincial perspective. Thank you for the information on the vocational education happening in NY.

Andrew Gilmartin said...

"Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. 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."

Source How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work