There’s an education evolution on the horizon…..and it’s past due!

April 12, 2017

I was honored to be invited to give the opening remarks on April 12th at the 2017 Post secondary Pathway event, hosted by Indiana Youth institute (Copy of full remarks seen below)

This was a collaborative group of educators, counselors, administrators, non-profits, and employers all coming together to help align the needs of today’s employers with educators (specifically in the manufacturing sector). I must say… I was quite pleased with the direction I heard and momentum I felt from many of the educators, administrators, and non-profit service providers.

In response to some of my opening remarks (full remarks seen below) about the need to “re-brand” the trades and tech school paths and remove the stigma, a strong theme seemed to be echoed by the education panel taking questions from the crowd. This was the need to primarily change this stigma with the parents….not necessarily the students. I believe one panelist used the following phrase when referring to a parent’s viewpoint, “tech school is a really good option, just not for my kid”. I found this info to be extremely enlightening, and somewhat challenging to overcome. While I admittedly don’t know how to solve this problem next month or even next year, I did respond to these comments by pointing out the major shift I see coming to this mindset by virtue of a natural generational shift. We Millennials are the product of baby boomers, who’s generation saw the negative sides of factory work in their parents and their own early careers. Those were tough and often unsafe working environments in which you had little hopes of advancement without an education. Today’s manufacturing environments resemble nothing of that. Now, the reverse of that is true. Millennials who were convinced college was the only path, are seeing mountains of their own student loans while finding fewer jobs where their degrees are even relevant or utilized. All of this, while their counterparts who went straight into a trade or highly technical role, demanding only a certificate, are often out earning them….and with little to no debt. Of course this new generation views those alternative career paths as a more viable option for their children! From these comments, I hope that I offered a minor token of validation and confidence to these educators and administrators that the time is near where the resistance of parents toward these alternative paths will come to an end.

Copy of opening remarks:

“My name is Matthew Nix, I am the President of Nix Companies in Poseyville, IN. I am also a member of the Tri-State Manufacturer’s Alliance executive committee. On behalf of TSMA we are happy to be partnered with the Indiana Youth Institute on this great event.

I was humbled when asked to speak about my personal journey as it relates to this event and my perspective on the need to align education with career pathways.

I’ll try give you some context as to my perspective by describing my journey to this point. Fortunately for you all, I’ll only be able to skim the surface of my thoughts around aligning education with career paths in the time they’ve allowed me.

So my journey is a little bit unique in that I grew up in a family business. Although, I recognize that not everyone has the opportunity to grow up in a family trade, I do think there are some points that are relevant to the conversation. I want to preface the rest of my story by mentioning, although we have over 30 team members today and I admittedly don’t work in skilled trades’ position any more. When I joined the business it was just my grandfather, father, aunt, and I, so it was your typical small business where you did the skilled work.

Growing up I started working in our welding shop sweeping the floors at a very young age. I still remember getting paid $5.00 for working Saturday morning. As I got into high school, I began to work during the summers and then my senior year I did a program that North Posey High School offered where I attended school in the morning and worked in the afternoon. After high school, I attended Vincennes University for Welding and Machine Technology before returning to the family welding business full time. I have now been in the business full time for about 13 years. We currently employee a few dozen trades people including mechanics, painters, machinist, welders, and CAD draftsmen. As we continue to grow our organization, finding qualified talent is increasingly difficult to do. It has actually been inhibiting our growth for the last several years. We could drastically increase the size of our business right now if we had the skilled folks to execute the work.

So, that’s a brief look at my journey, now I will attempt to touch on my perspective of aligning education and career pathways. As I prepared for this event, I was reflecting on why I chose my career path. I was one of these kids that did ok in school without really trying. I got mostly A’s and B’s and felt pretty confident I could hang with any college students in the country if I applied myself. In addition to that, I was blessed with a college fund my parents had been saving for me. By all accounts, I had the skills and the financial means to attend just about any major 4 year school. I say that not to boast, but to help you gain some perspective of the choices I had at hand. In middle school and early in high school (the time I think a lot of kids are making their first career choices), I thought briefly about going to architecture or engineering school, but then settled back on joining the family welding business. The key here, I believe, was that I never viewed the welding path as an inferior path to engineering. It was simply another path. I was fortunate to grow up and experience the life my Dad was able to have and provide for us through his skills in the trades. He made a great living and clearly found fulfillment in his work. He taught me to take pride in that work and allowed me to see that it was a very respectable career, not some sub-par way to pay the bills. The point is, that most kids aren’t as fortunate to get an inside view into those careers. They are led to believe that a career in the trades is inferior to college. If we are speaking specifically about finances, that might be true in some cases, but certainly not always. Many of the young folks working at our company make far more than their counterparts who attended college, and in most cases with little or no student debt. In addition to that, many people find far greater fulfillment in creating something with their hands than sitting behind a desk shuffling papers.

So, what is my perspective…..what is the answer? Well, I’m afraid we as employers are quick to blame the school systems and administrators for this, and I’m not sure that is correct. As I’ve dug into this very systemic problem, my perspective is that we are all focused on the surface level issues. We want to focus on better tech school curriculum and building more infrastructure with more technology. These things are all great, but if you don’t have the volume and caliber of kids willing to take advantage of these opportunities, then we are missing the mark. In manufacturing one of the things you learn in regards to continuous improvement, is to never spend resources anywhere but the bottle necks. Well if I were to translate that to this topic, spending resources on anything other than changing the perception of the trade school options and filling up the current classes with people other than flunkies would be an absolute travesty. I can guarantee you if a school’s honors English class is full year after year, they are going to hire another English teacher. I have to believe the same would be true for trades and tech classes. If year after year the classes are busting at the seams, we will likely see the necessary resources get deployed to expand them.

What we as employers must do is continue to get involved and create awareness about our needs. We must also hold our government administration accountable to aligning the goals of our educators and administrators with that of employers. If we a are sitting over here saying that we value technology and trade options, but we are only incentivizing and/or recognizing our administrators for boosting college attendance, than why are we surprised at the outcome? Again, using a manufacturing analogy, that’s like preaching that you value quality, but only incentivizing your people for volume.

Page 4 of the 2011 College Board National Survey of School Counselors and Administrators states:

93% of School administrators overwhelmingly agree with 92% of school counselors that the ideal mission of the education system should be “ensuring that all students complete the 12th grade ready to succeed in college and career”.

This whole concept is sort of puzzling to me, because I thought the point of school was to prepare kids for a career. I don’t know how you could possibly read that phrase without believing it implies that preparing for college is the most important mission of high school. Why doesn’t it say “preparing for a career or college”? If college is the necessary path for your respective career than fine, but if it isn’t why are we implying it is the overarching goal? 

I read another disturbing tidbit in this same College Board National Survey Article. It said:

“Only 31% of counselors say that they intentionally collaborate with governmental, community, nonprofit organizations and businesses to match their programs and services to support these types of interventions.”

So for those of you who are here today, I’m going to assume you fit into this 31% and I sincerely thank you for being here. Now that we are all coming together, instead of discussing the next curriculum, I believe we should be discussing how we plan to get the other 69% engaged in this huge systemic problem. We need to be re-branding the image of skilled trades’ jobs and tech school, and lastly, we need to be focusing on aligning administrator incentives and recognition with the needs of today’s employers.

Until business leaders and school administrators can all come together to totally re-brand this image of skilled trades and tech school as a very viable career path, and one to be celebrated, then I think we are just spinning our wheels. Fortunately, in Southwestern Indiana we have some great organizations that are working hard to drive this initiative and I think that is why we are all here today.

One last manufacturing analogy and I will shut up, if I’m in the ink pen manufacturing business and the point of my business is to make this high end pen. I’ve been making this pen since the 1970’s. It takes three steps to produce this pen. Now after 50 years the demand for this pen is declining and the demand for another pen is rising. The technology has changed so that I only needed the third step to produce half of my pens, and I could make the other half just as well while removing the third step. Why in the world would I incentivize my people to use that wasted step for all of my pens? Wouldn’t I just want them to meet the customer demand in the most efficient way possible?”