How Asia WorksI just picked up the book How Asia Works by Joe Studwell and am breezing through the introduction. For those of you who like books on economics and economic development, you’ll be absolutely thrilled and delighted with his premise.

For people who are, oddly, not fascinated by economics, you can ignore the book and follow along with this week’s missive. Here is a lengthy quote from the Introduction on a topic that the book promises not to deal with at length, but is probably one of the topics I’m most interested in. These three paragraphs say a LOT about the current state of education here in America (without even mentioning it specifically) as we seek to be competitive in the world market (emphasis mine).

There are two, related explanations for the patchy connection between education and economic growth. The one heard about most often is that, from a developmental perspective, there is too much education of the wrong kind. In east Asia there exists a marked contrast between the emphasis on vocational training of secondary and tertiary level students in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China, versus the less trades-focused education systems of former European and US colonial states in southeast Asia. The engineering qualifications of a Taiwanese student may be more appropriate to the initial task of economic advancement than the accountancy qualification of the Malaysian student. By the late 1980s, vocational training (mostly focused on manufacturing) constituted 55 percent of tertiary education in Taiwan, while less than 10 percent of students were taking humanities subjects. In the 1980s, relative to population, Taiwan had 70 per cent more engineers than the US. Like Korea and Japan, which established the model in east Asia, the Taiwanese education system came to resemble those of the manufacturing-based economies of Germany and Italy in Europe. Southeast Asian states, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, placed more emphasis on the humanities and on ‘pure science.’

A shortfall of vocational training and engineers, however, cannot be more than a tiny part of the explanation for the laggardly performances of southeast Asian states and others with educational profiles like them. To begin with, in northeast Asia most of the engineers were trained after fast growth took off. The early success of Meiji Japan was achieved with surprisingly few engineers – the country only began to step up its vocational and scientific and technical education in the 1930s. In countries like Cuba and Russia, by contrast, vast numbers of engineers have been churned out without positive results. All this points to the second and almost certainly more important, reason why data about formal education and development do not jibe well. It is that a lot of critical learning in the most successful developing countries takes place outside the formal education sector. It occurs instead, inside firms.

This intra-firm learning helps explain the relative failure of the former Soviet Union and its satellites, where investment in education and research was focused on elite universities and state research institutions rather than inside businesses. The situation has been not too dissimilar in southeast Asia which combined the Anglo-Saxon tradition of elitist tertiary education with a major post-independence expansion of public sector research institutions. In Japan, Korea, Taiwan and post-1978 China, by contrast, a lot of highly effective educational investment and research has been concentrated not in the formal education sector but within companies, and by definition – unlike the Soviet situation – within companies that are competing internationally. This may be critical to the rapid acquisition of technological capacity. As the Japanese scholar Masayuki Kondo put it when describing Malaysia’s failure to develop indigenous technological capacity despite a lot of investment in higher education and research: ‘The main context of industrial technology development is firms, not public institutions.’ Technology policy, not science policy, is the key to the early stages of industrial development. As a result, a government’s industrial strategy is the most powerful determinant of success If a state does not force the creation of firms that can be the vehicles for industrial learning – and then nurture them – all efforts at formal education may go to waste. The only caveat is that once a country reaches the ‘technological frontier’ in manufacturing, its optimal educational mix – and the relationship between institutions of formal education and learning within firms – changes.

Did you follow that? I wanted to stand up and shout – mostly at politicians who want to transform our public schools into education factories through the use of quality assurance techniques (read “testing”) instead of actual quality control. Basically, politicians and administrators want to “test into compliance” the education of our students. Studwell shows us another way.

For those of us in the business of educating people in the world of business, we are confronted with the needs of teaching people how to do their jobs. I interviewed today with a firm about designing training for a major restaurant chain and it was all about “vocational education” in the sense that training outcomes were tied to job performance. We typically don’t blink an eye at this. Of course they are, right?

Schools, on the other hand, are not under the same kind of pressures we are. In fact, they seem to become increasingly divorced from job performance and driven more toward “educational outcomes.” My question is, “What if they succeed?” Even if we have the most highly trained and competent STEM students in the world, does that mean they can get jobs? See:

So what does that have to do with us? For those of us who have kids in the system, we need to point out that not everybody can be a rocket scientist even if you have a degree. Someone still needs to put the power lines back in place after the storm and you don’t need a college degree to do that. Just as importantly, you can’t go to school anywhere to learn how to put the power lines back up, you have to learn that on the job. And that’s where we shine. As long as the economy supports job growth in ALL sectors, we will find work. I am delighted by the opportunity to train fast food workers in a creative and entertaining way that engages them because it means they have an opportunity to learn something of value, even if it is something as mundane as putting your burger together in a way that is appetizing, appealing, and not going to kill you.

In other news, some of you know about my humanitarian project since the launch of my campaign. I am raising funds so that I can take 100 water filter kits to the Masai Mara in Kenya and put together household water purification systems. I have built a relationship with the supplier who has done similar projects, mostly in southeast Asia and on disaster sites. Here is a link to the system we will be constructing: Obviously, I would be delighted if you could make a generous contribution to help fund this project, but more importantly, if you could get the word out about my GoFundMe campaign, that would be even better. Suffice to say, I am not yet a viral sensation, but if each of you would pass the word along to friends who are concerned about clean water in developing countries and saving lives by reducing water-borne pathogens, I would greatly appreciate it. Also, let them know that I’m not a fly-by-night fundraiser, but can reliably be trusted to accomplish what I set out to do.