When the German engineering company Siemens Energy opened a gas turbine production plant in Charlotte, N.C., some 10,000 people showed up at a job fair for 800 positions. But fewer than 15 percent of the applicants were able to pass a reading, writing and math screening test geared toward a ninth-grade education.That's a hell of an anecdote - it certainly suggests that there's a problem with North Carolina high school education or the North Carolina workforce. But is it accurate?
Let's start with the provable facts. There is indeed a Siemens Energy facility in Charlotte, North Carolina. This facility was originally there and expanded to include a gas turbine manufacturing line in November 2011. It employs somewhere around 1500 people as of 2012.
However, there is no evidence that I can find (not in the Charlotte Observer or any other North Carolina media outlet) of any job fair being held by Siemens for the opening of this plant. I think that's kind of remarkable, especially since it seems to me that job fairs tend to get a lot of media coverage. It seems reasonable that a job fair being held in 2010 or 2011 or 2012 by Siemens would receive a fair bit of publicity, especially one that received a visit by "some 10,000 people." Those are minor league baseball stadium numbers.
Rather, here's a relevant anecdote by Julie Cook Ramirez at Human Resource Executive Online (written in 2014, emphasis mine):
But when the company sought to expand its Charlotte, N.C., generator and steam-turbine plant to include a gas-turbine facility in 2011, it hit a hiring snafu.
The expansion required Siemens to hire an additional 1,500 people, nearly tripling its existing Charlotte workforce of 800. Since many of the area's textile companies had shut down, the area was rich with unemployed people eager for a new opportunity. But while nearly 10,000 people submitted applications through the Siemens website, the vast majority didn't have the requisite science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- or STEM -- skills.So, this story has a similar narrative (our applicants didn't have the skills we wanted), but things have changed - it's applicants to a website. Next, here's a relevant article from Lori Montgomery of The Washington Post describing the opening of the Siemens plant:
State and local officials kicked in millions of dollars in tax rebates to land Project Cardinal. The state also offered $3 million to provide customized training to workers at the new plant.
More than 9,000 people applied for the jobs; 4,700 were evaluated at state expense, starting with a career readiness test that measured math and reading skills. Those who needed extra help were offered free classes at the community college.This (Ms. Montgomery's version) makes a lot more sense to me, although her account is not a direct contradiction.
I suspect what actually happened is this: the Siemens announcement was made and the North Carolina state economic development folks (see page 19) set up a website where anyone could apply to work at the plant. Considering that unemployment offices tend to push people to put in applications (especially for mass hiring events like this one), the website got a lot of applicants from 1) unemployed folks and 2) folks with less education. It's not especially surprising that a significant portion of them did not have particularly good math or reading skills. I think Mr. Selingo's anecdote was factually incorrect, and when compared with competing narratives, it loses quite a bit of its force.
(Regarding Mr. Selingo's larger point that "apprenticeships are good" and "college shouldn't necessarily be for everyone", sure, that seems very reasonable. I don't think anyone (outside of higher education administrators, anyway) is arguing against that. That said, it seems to me that states (unemployment offices, economic development offices, community colleges, etc.) already bend over backwards to supply manufacturers with help assessing and training their potential workforces for free. Why should we spot these folks any more goodies? Also, is there any actual evidence that manufacturers are seeing long-term job growth that would support such an investment by the state? My suspicion is "no, not really.")