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Elisabeth Mason Headshot

It Ain't Rocket Science

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Rest in peace, Neil Armstrong.

Obituaries mention that the first man on the moon once said: "I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer."

Chalk that self-description up to modesty. The ex-astronaut had previously flown 78 fighter missions in the Korean War and then became a test pilot.

But let's take him at face value for a moment: Let's say you're NASA at its founding in 1958. You're looking for talented men and women (OK, mostly men back then) to compete with the Soviets in the space race.

Do you sit back and hope the perfect candidates will saunter into headquarters to fill your jobs on rocket ships and at Mission Control? Or do you make a conscious effort to find and train the people with the "Right Stuff?"

No prizes for guessing correctly. So here's my next question: If we could match people with jobs on that massive, moon-shot scale, can't we do it locally for private companies with smaller-scale skills needs?

Why not? And in fact the good news is we already do in a number of places.

A recent article on The Huffington Post described the efforts at Wheelock College in Massachusetts to adapt traditional coursework to the needs of future employers.

Also in Massachusetts, new legislation establishes an Office of Coordination within the Department of Education. The idea, put simply, is to find out what local employers need, and then train students to meet those needs.

It's not just the Bay State on a frolic of its own. On the other end of the Eastern Seaboard, Miami Dade College has also got the message. Recognizing the need for trained nuclear technicians, Miami Dade has partnered with Florida Power and Light to provide the next generation of high-skilled employees at Florida Power's Turkey Point plant. These graduates have a long-term, high-skills job waiting for them -- while Florida can be thankful there are no Homer Simpsons manning their local nuclear power station.

The Florida Power partnership is part of an impressive statistic: 96 percent of Miami Dade College's career and technical program graduates are placed in jobs appropriate to their skills and training. That's a testament to the vision and forethought of Miami Dade's President Eduardo Padrón (disclosure: I work with him and I think he's also an American hero).

Meanwhile, New Jersey is merging a medical and dental school with its flagship university, Rutgers, in the hope of bringing the jobs where the skilled workers are.

Note the interesting (but perhaps coincidental) political patchwork here: Democratic Governor and legislature in Massachusetts; Republican Governor and legislature in Florida; Republican Governor and Democratic legislature in New Jersey.

Can we replicate these partnerships between business and higher education across the country? In this partisan season, pick your bi-partisan catchphrase: 'Yes we can,' or 'You betcha.'

These kinds of initiatives ask little up front either of local employers or of colleges and schools. Employers, especially those requiring personnel with technical skills, should make their needs known; local colleges, especially community colleges with their ability to provide technical and vocational training, should arm their students with those skills.

There's probably enough in this idea to mildly offend both ends of the political spectrum (maybe a good sign). But let's focus on the political positives: For the Sons and Daughters of the New Deal, this is the kind of public-private partnership that powered our great industrial achievements of the mid-20th century.

And for the Unflinching Acolytes of Adam Smith, this is the free market as it was supposed to be: local division of labor, with minimal information cost.

Our flag flies on the moon because the late, great Neil Armstrong put it there. We didn't get there by hoping a few bicycle repairmen could adapt their know-how to Apollo landing craft (no offense intended to bicycle repairmen); we got there by making a concerted effort to marry the needs of NASA with the training capabilities of some of our finest institutions.

NASA figured out how to train people to design and fly machines to the moon. We should be able to figure out how to train people to meet the needs of employers next door. That, after all, is not rocket science ...