Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the Twenty-First Century

Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the Twenty-First Century

by Katherine S. Newman, Hella Winston

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From Katherine Newman, award-winning author of No Shame in My Game, and sociologist Hella Winston, a sharp and irrefutable call to reenergize this nation's long-neglected system of vocational training

After decades of off-shoring and downsizing that have left blue collar workers obsolete and stranded, the United States is now on the verge of an industrial renaissance. Companies like Apple, BMW, Bosch, and Volkswagen are all opening plants and committing millions of dollars to build products right here on American soil.

The only problem: we don't have a skilled enough labor pool to fill these positions, which are in many cases technically demanding and require specialized skills. A decades-long series of idealistic educational policies with the expressed goal of getting every student to go to college has left a generation of potential workers out of the system. Touted as a progressive, egalitarian institution providing opportunity even to those with the greatest need, the American secondary school system has in fact deepened existing inequalities, leaving behind millions of youth, especially those who live in the de-industrialized Northeast and Midwest, without much of a future at all.

We can do better, argue acclaimed sociologists Katherine Newman and Hella Winston. Taking a page from the successful experience of countries like Germany and Austria, where youth unemployment is a mere 7%, they call for a radical reevaluation of the idea of vocational training, long discredited as an instrument of tracking. The United States can prepare a new, high-performance labor force if we revamp our school system to value industry apprenticeship and rigorous technical education. By doing so, we will not only be able to meet the growing demand for skilled employees in dozens of sectors where employers decry the absence of well trained workers -- we will make the American Dream accessible to all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627793292
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/19/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 742 KB

About the Author

Katherine S. Newman is the author of a dozen books on topics ranging from urban poverty to middle class economic insecurity to school violence. No Shame in My Game: the Working Poor in the Inner City received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Prize and the Sidney Hillman Foundation Book Award. Newman, who has held senior teaching and administrative positions at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Princeton, is currently provost and professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Hella Winston is a sociologist and investigative journalist. She has held postdoctoral fellowships in sociology at Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. She is the author of Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels (Beacon Press, 2005). She currently lives in New York City.

Katherine S. Newman is the author of several books on topics ranging from urban poverty to middle-class economic insecurity to school violence. No Shame in My Game: the Working Poor in the Inner City received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Prize and the Sidney Hillman Foundation Book Award.

Newman, who has held positions at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Princeton, is currently senior vice president for academic affairs for the University of Massachusetts system.

Hella Winston is a sociologist and investigative journalist. She has held postdoctoral fellowships in sociology at Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. She is the author of Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels (Beacon Press, 2005). She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Reskilling America

Learning to Labor in the Twenty-First Century

By Katherine S. Newman, Hella Winston

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2016 Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-329-2


The Limits of the "College Solution"

Booker T. Washington, distinguished graduate of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, founding president of the Tuskegee Institute, is remembered today as the man who lost a great debate with his arch-rival, W. E. B. Du Bois, champion of civil rights and advocate for the "talented tenth" among African Americans. In his well-known "Atlanta Address," Washington argued that black people less than one generation away from slavery would succeed in a racially polarized world only by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps through "industry, thrift, intelligence and property." Always the great compromiser, Washington was willing to abandon the quest for the vote, tolerate segregation and discrimination, and refrain from campaigning against racist behavior in exchange for his highest priority: a free basic education for blacks. Training the hands, not the mind, was, he thought, the most expedient way to deliver African Americans from abject poverty. Accordingly, the "Atlanta compromise" proposed limiting blacks to vocational or industrial training, leaving the liberal arts off-limits.

Du Bois and his ally, William Monroe Trotter, utterly rejected Washington's stance, vigorously supported a crusade for civil rights, and insisted that African Americans should pursue a classical education so that they would be prepared to take their place among the nation's leaders. Industrial training of the kind that Booker T. Washington urged would spell a lifetime of subordination. Instead, black elites needed to set their sights as high as possible, an aspiration Du Bois embraced as the first African American recipient of a Harvard doctorate. "Men, we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools," Du Bois wrote.

Intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it — this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation, we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.

The dispute between Washington and Du Bois underlies the quandary we face today: Will the nation's "truly disadvantaged" prosper more if we insist that the right goal is to cultivate the mind through abstract ideas, through education for its own sake, and to secure access to the universal pursuit of the highest credentials? Or does it make more sense to dwell on the practical and ensure that at the end of the day there is a trade, a skill, a viable occupation to be had? When progressive critics in our own time attack vocational education for prematurely tracking the poor toward less prestigious jobs, while advocates for career and technical training push back in favor of pragmatism, we are replaying the debate that began with Washington and Du Bois.

In its own time, the "talented tenth" strategy was not directed toward the needs of the masses. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. reminds us, Du Bois was concerned above all with producing leadership for black America, with finding those "few gifted souls" who had the potential to become "an uncrowned king in his sphere." This was not Booker T's issue. He was thinking about the economic fate of the other nine-tenths. As Washington put the matter, "The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house." He argued that industrial education would benefit his people, and he traded away almost everything else in favor of support for this ambition.

Du Bois carried the day. But his emphasis on the aspirations and cultivation of elites faded away in favor of a universal call to open the doors of educational institutions, provide employment opportunities, desegregate housing, and guarantee the right to vote. Everyone should be able to seek a spot among the ranks of the talented tenth. Accommodating to inequality — as Washington was prepared to do in the name of economic security — was unacceptable. Upward mobility into the professions was the path toward respect.

White America did not see the world so differently. Class intruded everywhere. Blue-collar work paid well, at least during the heyday of industrial unions, but it was not a source of pride. In David Halle's book on New Jersey chemical company employees, America's Working Man, a line worker instructs his eight-year-old kid to wave the father's paycheck in front of his second-grade teacher and ask whether she had anything to say for herself. On the defensive, the blue-collar dad argued that his money trumped her prestige. But it was a hollow stance since the status hierarchy was clear enough. Richard Sennett's landmark book, The Hidden Injuries of Class, draws a poignant portrait of working-class parents who watch with pride as their children go far enough in school to qualify for clean jobs, in banks or office buildings, but he records their private anguish when their offsprings' success stories leave the family behind. Parents imagine their children are ashamed of their roots, hence the upward mobility of the next generation translates into a rebuke and estrangement as much as it does a celebration of success.

On both sides of the race divide, the emphasis on upward mobility reserved self-respect to the white-collar world. That was the goal and it remains so today. The route to the American dream, then, runs right through the gates of the university and into entrepreneurship or the professions. There are few victories short of that end goal. And that helps to account for the trenchant attacks on vocational education as an alternative. To critics, it signals a capitulation to lower status and a denial of the chance for those born among the "truly disadvantaged" to surmount their origins and move up the ladder.

If we inhabited level playing fields, these universal aspirations would make sense and the critique would be warranted. If everyone had a fair shot at such a future, the talented tenth could indeed multiply. But the fields have never been level and have become less so every year since 1973, when economic inequality began to grow rapidly in the United States. As a result, what actually happens to young people coming out of weak schools in poor neighborhoods is that they struggle to reach even the most modest goals and end up unable to lay claim on economic stability at all.

The College Experience for the Poorly Prepared

The United States has made significant strides in stemming the tide of high school dropouts. As recently as 2000, the high school dropout rate for Hispanic students age eighteen to twenty-four was 33 percent. Today it is down to 14 percent. Black students have followed a similar trajectory as their dropout rates fell from 16 to 8 percent. While these numbers are still too high, there is a lot to cheer about in the trends. Moreover, since college attendance is very high among high-school graduates — nearly 86 percent go on to some form of higher education — it would seem the message of "college for all" has reached the ears of the American youth of all colors.

College completion is an entirely different story. The higher education system in America is characterized by widespread access to college but a low rate of degree completion. After graduation, many high school students proceed immediately to college (68 percent in recent cohorts), but many of them do not complete their degree programs after they enter: Only 63 percent of entrants to four-year colleges complete a bachelor's degree in six years. As a result, as of 2014, only 34 percent of twenty-five to twenty-nine-year-olds had at least a bachelor's degree; and 8 percent have an associate's degree. Why do we lose so many along the way?

Inadequate preparation for the challenges of college is one of the most powerful reasons for attrition. Students coming out of weak high schools often lack the background to succeed in college, even when they have done everything their high schools asked of them. During the years when Katherine served as a dean at Johns Hopkins University, she occasionally heard from high school administrators in Baltimore who wanted her students to tutor promising public school students for advanced placement (AP) examinations. JHU undergraduates readily respond to these requests to help Baltimore teens prepare for the demanding exams, which are supposed to certify successful completion of college-level courses in everything from calculus to English literature. High school leaders noted with pride that the students enrolled in the tutoring program were receiving grades of 95 and above. Yet on the AP exams, these same kids would often receive the lowest possible scores. With marks of 1 or 2 (out of a possible 5), they could not signal to colleges that they were high-achieving. Locally, these students were high performers. When placed alongside their national peers, they were floundering. The preparation they received in the only high schools available to them simply was not strong enough even for the best of the students.

The Baltimore experience is repeated in many of the nation's urban centers. The City University of New York, the largest public university system in the United States, has grown increasingly concerned about the ability of students entering from New York public high schools to master its curriculum. Since 1999, students entering CUNY as first-time freshmen are required to take proficiency examinations before enrolling in any of the four-year colleges. There is good reason to worry: Nearly 50 percent fail at least one entrance exam and are required to take a remedial class. Indeed, it would appear that the entire city high-school system, which increased its graduation rates to an admirable 61 percent in 2010, is struggling to ensure its students are prepared for college-level work. Seventy public high schools earned the highest marks within the city's assessment system and a third of their graduates attend CUNY colleges. Yet well over half of these schools "posted remediation rates above 50 percent."

CUNY's problems are repeated across the country. Sixty-eight percent of students beginning at public two-year colleges in 2003–2004 took one or more remedial courses in the six years after their initial entry. Heroic and costly efforts are under way to make up for what these high school graduates lack, but remedial classes are often too little and too late to make a sufficient difference. So much of what college students need to master is cumulative: If their command of multiplication is shaky, algebra will be extremely difficult and calculus completely out of range. For those whose reading comprehension is weak or writing skills poorly developed, virtually everything they face in college — from passing exams to writing research papers — will be an uphill battle. The success rates of remedial education are low.

As Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman has shown, we would do far better as a nation to invest heavily in first-rate, universal preschool and K–3 to better ensure that children start out with solid fundamental skills. If we wait until students are in their late teens and early twenties, we are looking at significant deficits that are both difficult and costly to remedy. This translates directly into dropouts.

For the thousands of low-skilled students who determine it is worth it to try to get through college, the pain in the pocketbook is substantial, just to get to the starting point. They have to spend several semesters plowing through remedial courses that do not count toward degrees. Low-income students end up spending much of the financial aid they have been awarded to cover these "preclasses," which means they are paddling hard before they have even begun. Many run out of money long before their degrees are done.

As the advocacy group Complete College America has shown, less than 10 percent of the low-income students who start community college in remedial courses complete an AA degree in three years. Many don't even get to start a real college program: They get bogged down at the remedial end and exhaust their funding. Only 19 percent of students in the bottom quarter (measured by test scores in high school) will finish a college degree in six years. Most drop out, at least for a time.

The longer students take to complete a degree, the more likely it is that they face the need to balance the competing demands of parenthood and work alongside schooling. As Katherine discovered in her studies of fast-food workers in Harlem during the 1990s, many young adults stick to their educational ambitions against all odds. They juggle this load because they have imbibed the message that the key to a better life is a college degree. They work for periods, return to class, drop out to earn money again, pick up a class when they can. After all, they have to finance college out of modest earnings and take full financial responsibility for their children at the same time.

Paul Attewell and David Lavin followed a sample of women who entered New York City's public universities in the 1970s under their open admissions policy and showed that many of these low-performing students do eventually complete a degree, and it is worth their while to finish. Their incomes exceed the pay of college dropouts and their children benefit from the educational investments of their parents. But that time gap is long — often more than fifteen years — and that delay adds up to thousands of dollars in forgone wages.

The For-Profit Boondoggle

Student debt adds to the pressure to leave college. It has been mounting steadily among students in public and private universities. But nowhere is the student debt burden more troubling than that part of the higher education industry that is truly a business, one that is making a killing from federal government loan programs. The University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, Argosy University, and DeVry University, followed by a series of tuition-guzzling schools whose names were crafted to confuse: Brown College, Berkeley College, and Virginia College came into existence in the 1990s. They have been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. Subways, buses, and cable channels are plastered with ads from these schools, which charge thousands of dollars for an education that claims to prepare students for good careers but ends up — more often than not — leaving them with credentials that have little purchase in the job market and a legacy of sky-high debt. And this is the best case, when students actually complete their degrees. Thousands never do.

The for-profit colleges represent only 13 percent of the nation's college student population, but they constitute nearly one-third of the people who take out student loans and nearly half of those who ultimately default. Sadly, it is precisely these students who can least afford the debt. "Low-income students — between the ages of 18 and 26 and whose total household income is near or below the poverty level — are more likely to be overrepresented at for-profit institutions and are underrepresented at public and private four-year institutions." This problem is only getting worse. Between 2000 and 2008, the poorest students increased their presence in for-profit schools from 12 percent to 19 percent and they shied away from public four-year institutions in record numbers.

In 2010, Katherine, along with Rourke O'Brien, authors of Taxing the Poor, interviewed desperately poor residents of dilapidated trailers parked on scrubland in rural Alabama and ramshackle houses in crime-ridden neighborhoods of cities like Birmingham. In an effort to find a way out of this grinding poverty, several of the mothers they met had signed up with online colleges that advertise four-year degrees, in the hope of finding jobs as clerical workers that would be steady enough to improve their families' lot. One of them, Beatrice Coleman, had already taken out $40,000 in loans to finance a four-year degree in medical billing, believing that she would qualify someday for a job paying $15 an hour. Even if Bea were lucky enough to land the job of her dreams, it would be decades before she could pay off the loans. But to this disabled mother of two, the degree seemed to her to be the best option. And besides, her for-profit college was so "eager to help" that they processed her loans almost overnight and made sure Bea was always moving on to the next class, which, naturally, would cost her more in tuition (and loans).

Ninety percent of the funding that goes to support the for-profit education sector comes from federal government–backed student grants and loans. Clever and politically savvy manipulators of the Pell Grant system, which was created by Congress to support the educational needs of low-income students, the for-profits have become junkies for government spending. In fact, half of for-profit college students receive government-funded Pell Grant system, which was created by Congress to support the educational needs of low-income students, the for-profits have become junkies for government spending. In fact, half of for-profit college students receive government-funded Pell Grants, and those students make up 20 percent of Pell Grant recipients — despite the fact that the schools serve only 6 percent of the country's student population. By law, this kind of debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings and hence people like Bea who do not find jobs that enable them to pay these loans back will be hounded by collection agencies for the rest of their days.


Excerpted from Reskilling America by Katherine S. Newman, Hella Winston. Copyright © 2016 Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction 1

1. The Limits of the “College Solution” 13
2. A History of Ambivalence 27
3. The New Vocational Turn in American High Schools 56
4. What Industry Needs 81
5. The Community College Connection 112
6. What Vocational Education Could Be: The German Model 124
7. The Math Puzzle 154
8. Bringing the Dual System to the United States 172
9. Where Do We Go from Here? 197

Appendix: What’s Growing? 211
Notes 217
Acknowledgments and a Note on Research 241
Index 247

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