Whenever defenders of public education in the past tried to explain that the ultimate strength of schools in this country is their ability to produce creative graduates, they were seen as apologists for a failing system. But perhaps their remarks will now be given more respect because of the trend toward onshoring. General Electric serves as a case in point (“The Insourcing Boom,” The Atlantic, Dec.).
Long known as a leader in manufacturing consumer products, GE slowly began to realize that it was being penny wise and pound foolish by offshoring much of its manufacturing to China, where the cost of labor was a pittance. For example, GE could hire 20 or 30 workers abroad for what one worker cost domestically. At first, the savings seemed to justify the strategy. But it became obvious over time that quality was seriously suffering. Trying to redesign products using Chinese “expertise” was futile because innovation was simply not part of the Chinese DNA. As a result, GE belatedly realized it was time to move the manufacturing process home, where American engineers and other workers possessed the ability to make a superior product.
GE is not alone. Other large companies are following suit, including Whirlpool and Otis, to name but two. “In the first blush of cheap manufacturing, it’s easy to overlook the slow loss of your own skills, the gradual homogenization of your products, the corrosion of quality and decline of innovation.” Once quality is gone, a brand is tarnished, and it’s extremely difficult to regain consumer trust. That’s too steep a price to pay. I wonder, however, if these same companies ever ask themselves about the role that public schools play in producing the talent they desperately seek. The proof is that Chinese and South Korean educators want to learn how American educators are able to imbue students with creativity (“Seeking Creativity, Asian Educators Look to US Programs,” Voice of America, Sept. 18, 2011).
I’ve written often before that scores on tests of international competition are poor indicators of creativity and innovation. So even though other countries post higher rankings than the U.S. on these tests, it’s much ado about very little. I still have confidence in our public schools because they turn out graduates who are equipped to meet the demands of a fast changing economy. (The notable exception are inner-city schools whose track record on all counts is truly appalling.) I think the complaint that companies can’t find enough STEM workers domestically to fill existing openings is an excuse to hire more foreign workers who are willing to work for far less.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.