Jobs went on to urge that a way be found to train more American engineers. Apple had 700,000 factory workers employed in China, he said, and that was because it needed 30,000 engineers on-site to support those workers. “You can’t find that many in America to hire,” he said. These factory engineers did not have to be PhDs or geniuses; they simply needed to have basic engineering skills for manufacturing. Tech schools, community colleges or trade schools could train them. “If you could educate these engineers,” he said, “we could move manufacturing plants here.”
— From “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, recounting a 2010 meeting of tech CEOs and President Barack Obama.
• • •
What is true for the nation is true in the state of Washington. We have an economy strong on technology and manufacturing. Our educational system, however, is weak. Industry requires educated workers. Our schools, colleges and universities do not produce them in sufficient numbers, for myriad social, political and economic reasons. We must import them, from other states, from other countries. We depend on other states to staff our workforce.
This situation might be acceptable, even expected, given the state is home to some of the world’s most successful tech-oriented businesses. But there is some sense of shame to it, with the obvious and growing evidence that too many of the students who enter the state’s educational system end up with only a high school diploma or much less, and are destined to struggle in the economy’s lower strata.
This is not a revelation, but was restated in a recent analysis from the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Research on Higher Education, titled “State Policy Leadership Vacuum: Performance and Policy in Washington Higher Education.” Washington had an admirable system of community colleges and its universities serve students well once they arrive, the report says. It leads in the percentage of students who obtain degrees in six years or less. The trouble is preparing qualified students and getting them into the system. Washington ranks near the bottom of states in production of bachelor’s degrees per capita. It has an extraordinarily large undereducated population. Its high school graduation rate is just 68 percent, near the bottom of the national rankings. A quarter of Washington adults age 18 to 24 lack even a high school diploma. Only 40 of 100 students who start ninth grade enter college on time. Only 6 percent of 25- to 49-year-olds without a degree are enrolled in post-secondary education, said the report.
In the face of this substandard performance, the state’s leadership struggles. They commission studies and appoint blue ribbon commissions and task forces, and then little or nothing is done. Financial support for higher education is eviscerated. Financial aid is cut. Tuition rises quickly. Community colleges play a larger role but four-year institutions have no incentive to take their transfer students, because upper classmen cost too much.
Many of these problems stem from economic struggle, but many, the report notes, are worse for lack of leadership, planning and effort. We have ourselves to blame, but change must come. In five years two-thirds of the jobs in Washington will require some postsecondary education, the report says. We need more college students. We have to find a way.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.