Monday, January 04, 2016

skills or cheap labor?

Apple CEO Tim Cook was on 60 Minutes last night (recorded), and claimed that the reason they do almost all of their manufacturing in China is that China has skilled people there that we do not. It was not the best face for him to present to his largest market. Perhaps, however, there is some uncomfortable truth to what he said that should alarm us and perhaps awaken us to do something about it. Skills, you don't get by sitting at desks, and by the time American students graduate from high school, they've spent more time sitting at desks than children anyplace else in the world, and that costs us dearly. Developing skill is not a mindless enterprise.

Another aspect of the situation is that while many American manufacturers need skilled workers, too few want to invest by helping them to develop the skills they need.

When I started the Wisdom of the Hands program in 2001, I was concerned that manual arts were no longer being taught in schools. I discovered that the problems in American education were far worse. Getting rid of shop classes was a symptom, not a cause, and the situation gave insight into an educational model run amok. Getting rid of shop classes could only seem reasonable to those who had made a fundamental error in understanding how and why children learn.

Standardized testing now drives schooling, and American manufacturers have actively supported that model even though it fails to deliver the skills they need. And then when they export jobs, they then claim that it's the skills they need (that we can't provide), not the cheap labor that drives their decision to manufacture overseas.

Children, it should be noted, have an overriding inclination to do something well, and to demonstrate for others their intelligence and skill.  Schooling should be redesigned to take advantage of that inclination by providing students the opportunity to do real things.

Make, fix, create, and extend to others a chance of learning likewise.


  1. A few months ago I had a house guest from Shanghai. She had been in one of Foxcons factories in China where Apple products were built. She described it as human robots doing repetitive tasks, no skill involved, just mindless repetition. The impact on the workers was to her obvious. She did not see skilled workers, she saw mindless human robots. Perhaps Tim Cook is either uninformed or less than honest.

  2. Steven,
    Matt Crawford describes the craftsman's use of jigs in his book the "World Beyond your head," and suggests that there are cultural jigs that sustain particular kinds of accuracies in processes. Having streams of upwardly mobile masses of folks wanting employment and willing to work at any price seems to work for Apple at Foxcon. The agency of the individual craftsman free to make decisions based on personal response to the materials and the environment are likely not what Apple would be looking for.

  3. I can assure you that Chinese students spend far more time sitting on seats over desks than their American peers often until 10 pm in the evening and seldom with any particular task in mind. Tim Cook is an industrialist who wants cheap labor, end stop. He wants skilled workers to work at the lowest wages on the planet. China supplies him with what he wants as well as the marketplace to sell his products in. The Chinese are more brand crazy about Apple, but in their minds, it's a foreign product. They have no interest in buying anything simply because it's made in China.

  4. Anonymous3:23 PM

    I'll also point out that the U.S. isn't Apple's largest market. Revenue outside of U.S. is greater than inside and while the U.S. is currently the single largest country market, China is the fastest growing. In the relatively near term, Americans will find that they no longer dictate what gets made. Our power has always flowed from the fact that we purchase more things than anyone else - now that China is purchasing nearly as much, and soon more, they will be in that driver's seat.