Beware the Algorithm: STEM Recruitment Meets Big Data

Big Data, it seems, is suddenly very big. Among the social scientists with whom I spend time, newly massive, deep-tissue-massaged bodies of data have found currency.  As a research tool, the emergent technique seems to promise a rehabilitation of conventional, sometimes dismayingly narrow, quantitative analysis because it involves the use not just of MORE raw material but also of unprecedentedly nuanced software. So, unlike old “Small Data” projects, the empiricism of Big Data research feels like it is rooted in an especially flexible and expansive kind of inquiry.  As more and more media, public and private institutions, and cultural enterprises of all kinds operate on-line, the idea that our research subject (manipulated data) and method (manipulating data) shall coincide seduces. But perhaps caution is advised.

I recently attended a social science workshop in which the taxonomic, counting, and graphing choices being made with Big Data seemed to be tripping along with a minimum of criticality and reflexivity.  Not one among the sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural historians attending suggested that the new scale of data-collection and warp speed of data-crunching might hold totalizing risks for the analyst.  In the bigger-data-sets-are-better atmosphere, Foucault’s point that in rendering a subject knowable we reproduce power seemed lost amidst the intoxicating possibility of…the comprehensive.  That this feature of Big Data holds profoundly political implications became clear to me when I read a piece in yesterday’s New York Times by Matt Richtel on the role of Big Data in enhancing inclusion in STEM.

“I Was Discovered by An Algorithm” is not about the social sciences per se, but it is about the use of extraordinarily large data sets for ostensibly value-laden purposes. The article introduces readers to “work-force science,” a new-ish field in which human resources personnel mine massive amounts of data to determine both which sorts of qualification and which individuals may best suit a particular job category or position. In the case of computing professions, the growth of on-line code sharing and programming provides a ready-made body of data that can reveal, proponents say, unrecognized talent. This system supposedly corrects for social biases triggered by our faces or resumes to expand hiring pools and individuals’ opportunities, alike.

But the notion of hidden STEM talent is one I’ve long been concerned about and its mention here alerted me to a conservative deployment of Big Data. Defining the problem as one of unrecognized talent is a way of seeing under-representation in STEM without asking questions about opportunities…about discrimination in education that might preclude an individual’s development of technical interests. Nor does it let us ask about the inherent oppressions of segmented industrial labor , a system that minimizes workers’  chances to learn and grow through work. To me, such searches for promising but as-yet-unrecognized STEM workers have presented a seemingly inclusive agenda that manages systematically to ignore such structural inequities.

Consider the framing of data-driven STEM hiring described in Richtel’s piece. Vivienne Ming, chief scientist at the start-up firm, Gild, approaches the mining of Big Data as a way to evade the biases traditionally found in hiring, including gender, race, and the presumptions we make about one another based on university attended or jobs previously held.  The main case covered in the article is that of a young programmer who never attended college but who, once in range of Gild’s “automated vacuum and filter for talent” (as Ming calls it),  was revealed to possess exceptional capacities.  He got the job. To Ming, this approach to recruitment lets the firm “put everything in,” and then lets the “data speak for itself.”

But of course, data can’t speak for itself; only for those who have given it meaning. Despite Ming’s articulated concern with inclusion,  per Gild’s algorithm (and their Nike-esque catchphrase, “Know Who’s Good”), it is only success along existing standards of technical efficacy and productivity that identifies the outstanding programmer. Automating this determination may be great for the firm, but it hardly constitutes a significant push-back at discriminatory conditions. There are doubts expressed in the article about this HR approach, but these are themselves telling about the obfuscatory power of meritocratic logic in industry. Some observers worry that subjective features such as a candidate’s “people skills” are occluded with this kind of data-based hiring. Others want more finely grained objective tools, such as those at Gild who are eager to hone in on prospective employees’ most specialized technical skills. But the superficial differences between these complaints are deceiving. Both thoroughly detach hiring criteria from the social and political conditions in which those criteria arise and which those criteria faithfully reproduce.

I have lately been reading a remarkable book on industrial personnel practices by professor of management Barbara Townley , which considers “power, ethics and the subject at work” from a Foucauldian vantage point.  She reminds us that the field of human resources has always been about constructing the individual as an object of knowledge, not about “uncovering” some essential self in the prospective employee.  Work-force science, predicated on letting data “speak for itself,”  seems exquisitely suited to (in Townley’s phrase) “render organizations and their participants calculable arenas,” and to do so  unceasingly “in service to the profitability and productivity of the organization.”  To claim, as Ming does, that the largest bodies of data ever deployed for HR purposes will somehow transcend the foundational values of corporate HR seems like selective logic. Personally, I will now be mining Townley’s work for ways to understand the social instrumentalities of Big Data.

Who’s Minding the MOOCs?…continued

In trying to understand how American high-tech education forecloses political criticality, I’ve been reading a 1982 article by Michael Ryan in Yale French Studies called “Deconstruction and Radical Teaching.” Ryan writes of emerging  justifications for the growing capitalist influence on “the social and cultural life of the U.S. and much of the world,” including as that influence was becoming an integral element of higher education. In so many ways this piece shows that the rhetorical work being done by claims of  industrial “innovation” in the Western university today—mapping an unassailable pursuit of collective social and economic uplift, bringing all good things to all good people—was performed by evocations of “integrity” a few years ago.

Proponents of corporate involvement in academia in the early eighties celebrated the university’s “disinterested” character,  bathing their own economic interests in the warming light of academic freedom. Here’s one of Ryan’s great summations:

By assigning ‘integrity’  to the university, conservatives define their own project as an effort to maintain or restore a spuriously natural condition of purity of wholeness. The postulation of a normative attribute like integrity permits any radical attempt at modification to be characterized as a disintegrative degradation, a falling off from nature. Restoration of ‘integrity’ will consist of curtailing that new development. (p. 48)

So much to think about here, including the American university’s now entrenched deployment of rationality, “reasonableness,” and all that Ryan says constitutes the  “benign face of power, coercion, and the everyday brutality of patriarchal capitalism in America.”

But for the moment, here’s a question: How can we keep our eyes open for the next rhetorical restyling of this conservative, anti-constructivist agenda? “Diversity” in many settings certainly continues  the constrained, “What’s not to like?” institutional form it took on in the 1980s.  What new higher-ed headliners, disguising established privilege as social good, should we watch for in 2013?  Are they with us already?   “Entrepreneurship,” maybe? Sure, but more of a parade float for capitalism than a Trojan Horse. “Lifelong Learning?”  Definitely, as Foucauldian observers have amply demonstrated.

Perhaps, though, if the most ostentatiously reasonable and democratic priorities of the university are those  we must approach most cautiously…what about “MOOCs”?  As Carolyn Foster Segal’s  thoughtful InsideHigherEd piece of the other day (contra Thomas Friedman’s celebration) makes clear, MOOCs propagate the morally unifying, disciplining effects of education, not the potentially critical and unpredictable experiences of pedagogy.  As Ryan might say, here’s collectivity of a very particular kind….





The Closing of NanoInk: What Social Scientists See

Last week I visited UCSB to talk about ideas circulating around labor, education and high-tech innovation in America today. I had prepared a couple of talks that weren’t exactly upbeat;  I have little confidence in the promises currently being made about biotech, greentech, and nanotech as sources of “middle skills” jobs, as this blog has made clear. As I was getting ready to speak, I noticed a flurry of emails coming in.  Friends and colleagues were forwarding me a stunning bit of news: Crain’s Business in Chicago was reporting that NanoInk, Inc.,  a company that has for a decade operated outside the city manufacturing nanotech inscription apparatus and related applications, had closed.

The firm had shut with little notice.  The short version of the story, as Crain’s has it, tells us that Ann Lurie, the main investor in NanoInk who had contributed $150m to the firm over the last ten years, no longer felt that her investment carried acceptable levels of risk.  She retains her faith in nanotechnology as a field of research, we read, but the return to date was too slow, too small, to assure (in her mind) an attractive future for the company and its several spin-offs.

NanoInk, located in the old industrial suburb Skokie, had grown from R&D visions of prominent nano-scientist and -advocate Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University, but the company had also developed a relatively affordable, instructional version of its instruments along with curricula for use in high-schools and colleges.  Thus it figures largely in research I’m doing with sociologist Mary Ebeling. We are writing about the idea that a nanomanufacturing sector promises wide-spread employment to those with 2-year degrees as “nanotechnicians.”  NanoInk represented one of the most concentrated efforts we had encountered aimed at projecting a world of successful nanotech R&D; widespread application and scale-up of that research; and expanding nano-focused post-secondary education and employment.  Local politicians and educators partnered with the firm on a great many projects meant to build on the emergent “nanocorridor”…even a new Skokie station for the Chicago El, to bring in the projected crowds of employees of NanoInk, other high-tech start-ups, and (it was hoped) newly busy diners and shops in the neighborhood.

Are we surprised that the company and its associated civic projects did not achieve the promised traction? No, but there is no satisfaction in being right. The company was at the heart of a high-tech incubator in a community in need of economic renewal.  The confidence of NanoInk’s leaders and personnel, and of its backers in local government offices, university departments, and nearby community colleges was palpable.  Everyone we spoke to along the way about NanoInk and its plans—from the company’s own lab techs and executives to the township’s economic planners and shop owners—was fired up, and it gradually became impossible to say that any particular expression of enthusiasm was clearly a bit of self-serving sales pitch rather than something more generous… perhaps intellectual excitement, or civic pride, or the desire for economic uplift for the region.  Maybe Patrick McCray’s idea of “visioneering” helps capture it: emergent science and technology wedded—practically but zealously– to the pursuit of a “better” future…but here on the part of everyone involved, not just the tech experts.

So if intentions themselves were not the problem, what can we learn about the failure of this enthusiasm  ultimately to translate into economic opportunity, to produce those new jobs? We’ll tell the story of the company’s aspirations and the complicated ripple effects of its closure in our book, but for the moment I want to point to one quote in the Crain’s story.  One faculty member at Oakton Community College, part of a network of educators and policy makers in the region who helped forward the vision of a near-term demand for  “nanolabor”,  spoke in the Crain’s piece of the changed status of his program:

“It was sad news,” says John Carzoli, a physics professor at Oakton. “We’ll use the instruments they provided until we run out of supplies or it breaks down…”

OCC may keep aspects of its nano-focused curriculum going, but the poignant note he sounds seems undeniable.  The school’s program, like so many at our  community colleges, functions downstream of corporate decision making and, not to put too fine a point on it, was born and may die by the fortunes of industrial capitalism.  The school, its students, its community, have little security as capital follows its own needs.  This, too, is risk.

I hope our book can do justice to all of the enthusiasm of NanoInk’s personnel and the tireless efforts of the community college instructors who see the sector as a promising one.  But perhaps we can also point the way to some “trickle up” by which the risks taken by public school systems, students, and workers, the critical priorities not of investors and boosters but of these other stakeholders,  may carry more influence in future planning.  Rather than cluck our tongues at NanoInk’s folding, let’s focus on this: What might that influence look like?

Mind The Skills Gap


Edie Fraser, meet Adam Davidson.

Fraser, an expert on human resource issues in STEM-dependent industries, is the author of “The Root of Real Jobs: Filling the STEM Talent Gap.” This piece appeared in the Huffington Post the other day and can best be described as skills-gap boilerplate. The widely circulating trope that she makes central to her column depicts thousands if not millions of technical jobs in America going unfilled due to an underprepared national workforce, and as a result, citizens going jobless and the US slipping ever lower on the global economic pyramid.

Davidson, who co-founded the Planet Money blog for NPR, for his part offers a badly needed corrective to that mistaken picture.  In  an NYTimes piece this week, he emphasizes that the notion that we are suffering from a simple unmet labor demand is misleading.  That view implies that the challenge we face is the insertion of workers into waiting manufacturing jobs, no questions asked about those jobs. Instead, Davidson points out, wages in the vaunted high-tech manufacturing sector barely exceed those of fast food jobs, and these positions are notoriously insecure in light of employers’ commitments to the outsourcing and automation that lower their wage costs.  Given those conditions it isn’t unreasonable for un- and underemployed Americans to balk at undertaking specialized training for jobs that seem little better than those near the  bottom of the service sector.

As a handful of others have also pointed out, if the unfilled tech positions were really the result of a supply-demand imbalance, wages would rise until workers felt impelled to fill the “gap.” (See my post of a couple of weeks ago, on Peter Cappalli’s introduction of this point on 60 Minutes.)

Davidson is not unsympathetic to the plight of employers, including one he interviews who is reluctant to hire those coming from “union-type” backgrounds expecting pay levels the employer sees as unsustainable if his business is to survive. And in that sense, Davidson reminds us that this is a system that traps multiple participants (both high and low on the socioeconomic and opportunity ladder) in potentially unjust economic structures.  Important to remember though, is that the business owner has property in hand while the unemployed worker does not. They are not equally vulnerable to (or responsible for!) the system’s injustices.

Obviously, just to recognize as Davidson does that a wage deficit (and thus potentially, a profit excess) is at the heart of the problem is to be far more progressive than the skills-gap explanation would allow one to be. We do hate to see our cutting-edge manufacturing enterprises as anything other than, well, cutting-edge, but the social inequities inherent in the skills-gap rhetoric are as old and robust as American industrial capitalism itself, and Davidson helps us see this.

But I’d push Davidson still further. Both he and Fraser mention that more and better education could help everyone here, workers and employers.  Yet even though Davidson mentions a faltering “social contract” among workers and employers, neither writer points out that the underlying rationale for feebly funded and ill-conceived schooling in America historically derives from the same social priorities that make minimizing wages a reasonable aim for employers.  A legitimation of maximized socioeconomic differences among Americans is at work here, buttressing both the nation’s under-resourced education system and its low pay scales.

I know, I know: That plaint is becoming a bit of boilerplate in this blog.  But the constant reissuing of  uncritical statements about the burgeoning high-tech labor sector, like Fraser’s, even amidst apparently genuine concern about opportunity and diversity, is infuriating to me.  Calls for improved STEM education fit all too tidily with the obfuscatory concept of a STEM skills-gap; each formulation lends meaning and validity to the other.

But STEM education is not a panacea, as incisive writers on the “vocationalism” of US community colleges make abundantly clear (Brint and Karabel’s 1989 book, The Diverted Dream, remains invaluable here).  Education for jobs fails to bring widespread employment partly because of the very real lack of school/industry communication that Fraser cites, but also because the system isn’t designed to maximize knowledge and economic mobility among American citizens; instead it functions to assign different populations to different levels of occupational eligibility, many to a level with little real opportunity.  Without more of that kind of deeply critical thinking about undemocratic social structures, all the talk in the world about skills, jobs, and the gaps between them is not going to help the American worker.

“Shiftless” in America

Itching to know which ideas about the economy actually solidified during the recent campaign season? Which ones Obama toted, intact, through the onslaught of right-wing rants about the 47% (according to Romney, people who remain jobless because lazy…or, shiftless AND shiftless—get it?!), now to function as memes for the second term? Then you might want to watch the recent 60 Minutes segment on the “skills gap.”

"Three million open jobs in US, but who is qualified?"

The premise (which I’ve discussed before in this blog) is that millions of American jobs are going unfilled; here CBS points to about 500,000 open positions in U.S. manufacturing businesses alone.  60 Minutes frames this as a puzzle: “How can it be,” correspondent Byron Pitts asks, that in a time of high national unemployment jobs are going begging?  Something is wrong, but what?

Like many of Obama’s own speeches on the topic, the segment indicates that tech innovation promises prosperity for U.S. firm owners and their workers alike, once an appropriately trained workforce is slotted into the new high-tech sector jobs.  The 60 Minutes report is more interesting than some other policy and media excursions into “skills gap” territory, however, because it introduces, if tentatively, the possibility that we need to consider the role of employers in the production of this “gap.”

Much of the 12-minute story focuses on the need in manufacturing firms, small and large, for workers trained in emergent production techniques.  We watch un- and underemployed Americans participating in educational and internship programs in order to attain eligibility for the new, higher-tech, mostly software-centered manufacturing positions that supposedly abound today.  The excitement of those participating in the programs and ultimately the sheer relief of the newly employed are both made very clear in the segment.

The head of one family-owned business, Click Bond, a defense contractor in Nevada that makes fasteners for precision machinery (as used in, say, fighter planes), explains that it is not practical or affordable for the firm itself to do the training.  This seems like a good argument for community college curricula and other publicly supported education-for-jobs, as promoted by Obama. And indeed, the company helped develop just such a program locally.  But then the report digs ever so slightly deeper to ask a CEO of Alcoa why, if such efficacious educational and training options exist, so many positions in U.S. manufacturing remain unfilled. The CEO tellingly answers that, “Well, this is not a society where you can tell somebody what– where to go work, or where to– what education to get, right?” Ah, the shiftless American worker, in every sense of the word!

Certainly not racist in the sense of Romney’s old-school bigotry last week regarding Obama’s “gifts” of public health and education to minority Americans, but a classic moralistic put-down of the disadvantaged, nonetheless.  Coming from a CEO of a major corporate force in the nation, it’s a potentially influential one, too. Praise to CBS for not leaving that neoliberal shoulder shrug unanswered. Instead, near the end of the segment Peter Cappelli, a Wharton management professor, introduces what is for mainstream media a somewhat shocking point: Maybe the labor market is not, in fact, a supply-and-demand operation.  Industrial wages have stagnated and even declined in many production sectors, Cappelli notes.  The ostensible fair pay and secure employment said to be just waiting for the willing citizen is at least in part a myth, and one that hides the economic advantages accruing to capital in America.

Let’s consider what a viewer new to the topic (and the issue is introduced as something folks may not know about yet… “It’s called ‘the skills gap,’” Pitts intones as the report starts), might take away from watching the piece. Again, all this is very lightly laid on. Robotics are cast as an industrial “innovation” without any mention of the negative impacts of automation on employment levels; there is no probing inquiry into outsourcing trends.  But at least 60 Minutes suggests that the idea of a “skills gap” requires investigation, airing however briefly the notion that the  interests of American employees and employers do not invariably converge…a convergence implicit in the very notion of such a gap.

A glancing blow, yes, and a long way from any kind of redistributive approach that might show the profoundly disempowered situation of labor today, but still an unusual step beyond the unalloyed boosterism that usually surrounds the topic.

Not just STEM, or, Why the American Economy Needs Humanities Majors



Poster from Federal Art Project/WPA

This blog usually focuses on opening the door to science occupations for groups traditionally under-represented in those fields.  Obviously, one aim here is the creation of more opportunities for rewarding and remunerative STEM-related careers for women, minorities and persons with disabilities.  All good. But I have to turn our attention for a minute to a logical fallacy that such activism might unfortunately support: the idea that higher education in the humanities and social sciences is a bad idea for any young person hoping for a paying career.

This is a trope that goes with the pervasive idea that American is suffering from a STEM talent shortage as “competitor” nations build their technical workforces…Which in some narrow sense might be the case, but the answer to that shortage is to provide more kids with higher quality, more welcoming science programming, NOT to turn young people away from their non-STEM passions and pleasures!

Frank Bruni’s column on “The Imperiled Promised of College” restates that not-very-good idea in today’s New York Times.  He fittingly notes the unaffordable cost of college for too many Americans today, but less helpfully sees a worrisome insistence among many students on dead-end degree programs that lead to less-than-meaningful working lives:

 Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

As is often the case with such plaints, students’ engagement with humanities, arts and social science disciplines comes across in Bruni’s telling as pointless and naïve. But why should we accept that these venerable intellectual pursuits are occupational cul-de-sacs? You would have to accept the existence of an awful lot of social and cultural constraints in the process of doing so.

First:  You would have to accept that the low employment prospects for today’s humanities and social science grads mean that those disciplines are inherently a waste of everyone’s time and money—including the time and money of the anthropology, art history, film studies and philosophy majors who make up some of my brightest and most engaging students.  I will not be the one to tell these kids to suppress their fabulous curiosity, creativity and insight.

That first judgment in turn rests on the presumption that as a nation we cannot afford to create jobs for our arts and humanities graduates. The WPA famously produced some of the most enduring art, drama, and civil architecture in American history, but if that kind of outcome is too touchy-feely for you, think more practically.  Imagine not just the wealth of student experience and cultural excitement that a nationwide artist-, designer- or writer-in-residence program for American high schools would generate, but how students’ expressive abilities and communications skills would improve!  (…according to many educators, the very same  “soft skills” too many of our engineering students lack!)

And what about the democratic (dare I say, “global”?) potential of a nation with more science writers, equipped with federal grants to support their work for local newspapers? Or , with more social scientists specializing in research on the origins and impacts of science, technology and medicine…with funding to share their findings with both expert and community groups?  Our university humanities and social science programs can produce superb practitioners to fill these and many other positions.

Instead, Bruni and others wring their hands in unimaginative supplication to the conventional economic analysis that privileges industrial profits and  the projects that assure those profits.  The impoverished cultural and civic life that this vision projects for America is truly depressing… And, offers another instance where today’s low level of public resources for American arts and letters is naturalized as necessary for a healthy economy, asserting that we just don’t have the money for activities that don’t make money  (…or, make money for those who already have a way to make money, that is; NB how CEO salaries continued climbing throughout the recession).

Would we need big political and cultural changes to bring about this kind of renewal for the status and scale of humanities in American higher ed, a new and unfamiliar vision of what matters, and why? You bet…and just the job for artists, writers, philosophers and historians!

Obama, STEM, and the Rebranding of Community College

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama took another step in his effort to rebrand community colleges.  He sees the nation’s two-year colleges as playing a big role in preparing those who will work in emerging high-tech manufacturing industries.   Putting worries about his job-creation strategy aside for a minute (I’ll believe we can tax corporate outsourcing when I see it happen),  the speech did a good job of casting the American two-year college as home to sophisticated, cutting-edge science and technology skill and knowledge.

This message counters old stigmas associated with two-year technical programming, and I think it holds some promise for more inclusive STEM education writ large. Obama is associating community colleges,  at least rhetorically, with the promised science- and tech-based manufacturing resurgence…that is, with technical novelty and innovation. We are meant to leave behind our image of utilitarian “vo-tech” uplift,  and start picturing classrooms full of intellectual energy and achievement.  I could be caught up in the glow myself, of course, but it feels like the President is leveraging our cultural tendency to venerate high-tech in order to bring new respect to its students and teachers, even or especially in what has previously been seen by elite Americans as a second-best educational sphere.

In particular, Obama praised industry/school partnerships in which firms send employees to school for training or retraining in emerging technical fields.  He welcomed as his guest Jackie Bray,  who had found a renewed career through one such program run by Siemens at its Charlotte, NC,  “Energy Hub,” and although it remained a pretty vague directive, he called on Congress to provide the resources that would support such initiatives across the country.

And, he did all this early in the speech, when the largest audience could be guaranteed to hear it.

We mustn’t forget, of course, that job-focused education is not an unalloyed good, and that the possibility of transfer into bachelor’s programs must be built into the two-year curricula if we are sincerely to pursue educational and job equity in America. Four-year and graduate schools increasingly become options only for the affluent and we must not paper over that trend with feel-good rhetoric; people of limited economic means are turned away from the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees as a matter of course in this country, as this blog often points out.

What is more, industrial clean rooms function on the same managerial premises as assembly lines: modern manufacturing jobs are not necessarily any more secure or lucrative for the rank and file than were jobs in the “old tech” economy.

Nor is high-tech employment a guarantee of satisfying work. Repetitive, heavily mechanized or automated tasks performed by workers using nanolithography or bio-assay instruments can be as mind-numbing as those performed on shopfloors of a century ago. No job should deny those holding it the possibility of intellectual reward and creativity.  The history of manufacturing labor shows few employers making a priority of that concern and without it, STEM-focused education-for-jobs loses much of its sheen.

But let’s focus for now on Obama’s ongoing effort to cast community colleges as sites of exciting, immersive student experiences in technical fields. This is a significant rebranding that helps more than simply those individuals who may find jobs directly through programs like Siemans’.  It also moves us away from a stubborn habit we have in America of seeing two-year colleges and technical curricula as the preserve of those unable to “make the grade.”  This could recast the credentials offered by two-year schools,  and thus the opportunities of community college graduates as they move out across the nation’s higher-ed and employment spheres.  New labels are not enough, but they can help.

Saying No (Loudly) to Michael Ellsberg

I can hear the disgust in his voice.  When Michael Ellsberg tells us that college is a waste of time for many creative Americans, based on his observation that our most successful inventors and entrepreneurs (such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg) typically never finish their undergraduate degrees, his contempt for higher education is palpable…even before we get to the point where he says that for the sake of our flailing economy students need to learn about sales in college, but are “more likely to  take a course on why sales (and capitalism) are evil.”

“Evil”? Really?  I’d love a list of the professors Mr. Ellsberg has heard, first-hand, actually making such claims.   The New York Times published Ellsberg’s latest op-ed about the shortcomings of  U.S.  higher education on Sunday under the title, “Will Dropouts Save America?” and I do have to thank the paper for framing it as a question.  But I have no patience with the crude and self-serving picture Ellsberg  paints of the American university in his answer.

The folks he mentions are in some ways grand role models, sure…. ingenious, self-motivated and energetic as can be.  But the idea that we can characterize the entirety of post-secondary learning and teaching in U.S  as an impediment to such vision and creativity is below contempt. This is the same higher ed system that has  for generations carried countless children of farmers and factory workers into science and technology and business careers;  that has –hellllooo!?—brought us the highly educated thinkers that design and build the devices conceived by a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,  and  the massively complex data-handling  systems that enable a global-scale social network like Mark Zuckerberg’s.

Most pertinent: Many of those enabling technologies, not to mention hugely profitable pharmaceutical, biotech, and material innovations of recent decades, were born in start-ups run by university faculty members, themselves holders of college degrees…all apparently in spite of the “creativity stifling” character of our university classrooms detected by Mr. Ellsberg.

With his strong message that American college-goers are being duped, I can’t help but think Ellsberg starts out not simply from an excited appreciation of human inventiveness, but also from a sense of distaste for the people who teach in universities.  Such as myself. But here’s why I’m bothering to write about him… A few days ago, the Chicago Tribune published an article by Jesse Washington titled, “What’s behind the declining numbers of blacks in science, tech, engineering and math fields?” The article documents woeful statistics:

In 2009 African-Americans received 1 percent of degrees in science technologies, and 4 percent of degrees in math and statistics…

As many others have found, Washington reports that the reasons for such low minority representation in STEM fields are complex: students’ self-doubt, a lack of role models and mentors, pressure to earn money quickly, and discouraging academic environments rife with racial stereotyping.  But if the causes are complex, the results are clear:

The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degree has fallen during the last decade.

Horatio Alger stories like the one Ellsberg disseminates, that find the sources of American technical innovation primarily in the efforts of self-taught individual geniuses, do not merely mislead about the origins of most new technologies. Such stories also deny the role played by class, race, gender, national origin and a host of other identities in bringing about both the presence of some entrepreneurs and the absence of other Americans in the world of technical innovation.

Surely Ellsberg’s selective logic  would do little for the folks at Boeing, GE and Xerox, cited by Washington as worried about the nation’s scientific talent pool and dedicated to raising black STEM participation.  Those companies aren’t merely worried about their own hiring needs;  they know a nation without a thriving tech sector won’t support markets for their own products.  These corporations are as eager for innovation and as savvy about its wider effects as anyone in the country. Hard to imagine they  would find Ellsberg’s derisive approach to formal education, to the social and intellectual empowerment provided by the college classroom and lab,  any more constructive than I do.  We need far more opportunities for such empowerment in America, not fewer.

Charged Up in Michigan

An article in Sunday’s New York Times magazine, focused on lithium-ion battery makers in Michigan, does a nice job of laying out the many factors involved in creating manufacturing jobs for Americans.  In “Make or Break,” author Jon Gertner describes  prevailing business models that discourage the slow-return, incremental investments needed to bring new factories into being. We read, too,  that federal interventions that might support job creation face numerous cultural obstacles: small-government (my word, not his) political trends have long made federal “industrial policy” a distasteful topic for politicians. Well aware of those trends, President Obama (whether savvy or timid, depending on your point of view), turns to “stealth” distributions of federal stimulus money for industrial start-ups like the battery makers’.

Interestingly,  Gertner writes that  Michigan firms hoping to supply an emergent hybrid car market have begun to purchase and copy advanced battery technologies from their Korean counterparts.  “Cutting and pasting” production techniques from abroad is not a new approach for American businesses (Samuel Slater famously brought foundational British textile technologies to America in the 1790s, but unsung thousands of enslaved persons brought technical skills and knowledge to the colonies well before that, fostering the commercial production of furniture, metal and woodworked goods, medicines, and much more), but it is not one we see explored in print very often. …our Yankee Ingenuity-slash-Egos being a bit delicate, perhaps.  A bit more systematic respect for “other” sources of innovation might be in order, as the Michigan firm owners seem to understand.

Gertner mentions, too,  the training courses being offered by some local colleges to folks hoping for employment in Michigan’s new lithium-ion battery plants, but (not surprising to readers of this blog) notes that the future for these factories is still unsure.

Gertner doesn’t go into detail on many of these points. He seems to be aiming instead to convey how messy and complex the situation is, which I appreciate.  But in a sense, that lets him skirt the moral urgency of the debates he describes.  So here’s a thought experiment. What would this article look like if written from the perspective of people who need jobs?  Maybe the off-putting economic and political risks, and the distaste that influential Americans have harbored for  government intervention in recent decades, would look different if we all felt the urgency of job creation that unemployed Americans feel every day. With that felt necessity, the government and we voters might push for more stimulus money for manufacturing, more boldly and openly deployed.  With some centralized oversight and federal backing for these priorities, the aims of  real security, decent pay and safety for workers could help shape the jobs themselves, too. The fledgling ecology of high-tech manufacturing  is  “fragile,”  according to Gertner, and I believe him.  I would add: we can nurture it to sturdy maturity if we really want to.

The Good-News Game

Is it safe to assume that when CNN reports on a  presidential economic or educational initiative that’s been around for awhile, there’s some serious White House PR effort under way?   A “CNNMoney” column today titled “Recovery at Risk: Community Colleges Step in to Fill ‘Skills Gap'” by Tami Luhby lays out the basics of an Obama-led effort we’ve seen percolating since at least last fall:  American manufacturers actively shaping, and at times supporting  financially, community college programs intended to prepare workers for immediate employment. The President committed millions to the whole Skills for America’s Future initiative some time ago; we saw plenty of news coverage on this last year (as when Bill Gates pumped $35 million into the effort).  I have to wonder how this activity came to seem worthy of  media  coverage again this week; the uncritical tone of the CNN piece gives us a clue.

Since I’ve fretted before about the mismatch between technical curricula and manufacturing jobs, the sometimes misleading economic prospects offered to community college enrollees, it seems like I should give a thumbs up to the trend documented here.  Closer ties between employers and nearby schools  that offer certificates or degrees in technical subjects surely will help correct that mismatch, giving the communities involved a much better shot at raising employment figures.

But while there are exciting success stories for individual enrollees in such programs; a great many dynamic community college faculty and staff including those mentioned by Luhby; and plenty of business owners eager to be involved,  CNN’s coverage ignores systemic obstacles to creating a sizeable pipeline from school to work.  I know from research I’ve done with sociologist Mary Ebeling that the joint efforts of community colleges and their industrial advisory boards are fraught with challenges (think only of the pressures on the colleges to avoid costly, specialized instruction and on the manufacturers to automate and downsize).

The generality and simplicity of the piece is also bewildering.  The column opens with the line, “Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of job openings out there.”  Can this possibly ring true to anybody, this week of all weeks, left, right or center?

In Luhby’s column, Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric, talks in a video excerpt about his leadership of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. His words confirm my suspicion that this piece arises from some White House damage-control impulse.

Click for Immelt interview

Excerpt from CNN interview with Jeff Immelt, Aug. 1, 2011

Asked by interviewer Poppy Harlow to name the Council’s recommendation that he sees as most important in creating jobs, Immelt  offers what he says is “the easiest, no-brainer” step: Speeding up the country’s visitor visa system, thereby upping the nation’s “market share” of tourism,  and thus putting more Americans to work in “the travel and leisure industry.”

Have to say…these are not the first jobs that come to mind when I think “new skills” or high-tech manufacturing.  And sure enough, Immelt himself immediately adds, “You can argue that maybe that’s not as sexy as one of those factory jobs or engineering jobs, but look, that’s a job, and it puts people back to work.”

I’m sure this kind of peptalk is a tiny part of Immelt’s and the Council’s work, but come on:  tourism is a top job-creation priority? Really?  I’m afraid it just doesn’t sound like Immelt’s imagination defaults to picturing unemployed Americans working in the technology sectors. Writing at the time of Immelt’s appointment earlier this year,  journalist Jim Kuhnhenn reminded readers that the GE executive’s appointment, “adds another corporate insider to the White House orbit,” a move that was promising to the Chamber of Commerce but dismaying to union leadership.  Tom Buffenbarger, the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, writes Kuhnhenn, “blamed Immelt for GE’s decision to close plants in Virginia, Massachusetts and Ohio.”  He quotes Buffenbarger on the appointment: “‘We are rewarding the guy who is turning off America’s lights, literally.'”  No wonder Immelt highlights a need for more economic confidence and less red tape if we are to create jobs.  Trust business, don’t regulate it, seems to be the message.

“If we can’t do the easy things, we can’t do the hard things,” Immelt adds in the interview, pointing to the speed with which a visa reforms will lead to those travel-and-leisure sector  jobs.  But when exactly are we going to get to the hard stuff?  Who is going to ask the hard questions about how American manufacturers, whether small local firms or massive multinationals like his own employer,  can see their way to creating secure, well paid jobs, and about which federal policies will support that domestic commitment?   This week’s awful White House concessions to Republican big-business/small-government ideology paint a gloomier-than-ever picture for out-of-work Americans. As a Guardian editorial on Obama’s “sharp right turn” put it yesterday, “Austerity is not the road to recovery.”

Blaming the current economic malaise on a “skills gap” implies that the only thing missing is knowledge, that the only folks who need to step up to fix the economy are the country’s skills-deficient workers and its community college instructors.  Not so, and a good, honest move would be for everyone to lay the blame more precisely: on a jobs gap.