Here's a fascinating story Adam Davidson tells in this month's Atlantic:
Two smart young people’s lives take very different paths, even though neither has a four-year degree and both work in the same South Carolina factory. The first gets pregnant in high school and drops out of college to care for her child. She gets a “Level 1” job at a plant doing fairly rote work assembling fuel injectors. Further training just isn’t in the cards for her, a single mother living on a small paycheck. The second also drops out of 4-year college, but he transfers to a community college Machine Tool Technology program, where he studies a lot of math. As a "Level 2" worker, he earns about 50 percent more than his Level 1 colleague does, and his future looks much brighter.
Here’s what could be in store for both of them. If she doesn’t upgrade her skills, a machine will replace her the moment it starts to cost less than she does. She’ll have trouble getting another job that matches even the low paycheck she takes home now. He, on the other hand, has the potential to rise in his job or go back to school to take his career to the next level.
Both work in a factory that bears little resemblance to what many of us imagine a factory looks like. High-tech machines do more work than people do. Those machines work with such precision that a speck of dust could throw them off, and much of the factory floor is therefore cleaner than your local ICU.
The Level 1 workers do work that machines could do just as well, but they're still cheaper than the machines are--at least, for now. The Level 2 workers, by contrast, oversee the machines. They review the machines' output and continually adjust their quality. One mistake, and they could destroy equipment that's very expensive indeed.
So what kinds of skills separate the two factory workers? Our Level 2 worker studied algebra, trigonometry, calculus and computer programming. He plans to learn more about metallurgy and