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?" www.cbsnews.com

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.

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.

Our Town: “Equity” in Lower Merion

I am privileged to live in a district with superb public schools. But, despite its proximity to some of the most affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and access to significant tax revenues,  this is also a school system, like so many others in the nation,  with a documented achievement gap between African American students and those of other backgrounds.  A group of parents who find that gap unacceptable and believe it to be a product of systematic discrimination have brought a lawsuit against the district.  (A request for a class action lawsuit ended with a judge’s denial in 2009, but a suit brought by eight families now moves ahead.)  These families and their supporters joined to form the non-profit Concerned Black Parents (CBP).

Things have improved in recent years, but the gap persists, according to CBP. Troubling patterns  remain:  Some African American students in the middle- and high schools of Lower Merion School District (LMSD) are finding themselves tracked into special education classes when they don’t need those interventions,  while too few black students are being enrolled in the advanced classes that would serve them well.  Disproportionately low percentages of black students in LMSD attend college.   Among those black LMSD students who do pursue post-secondary education, disproportionately high numbers head towards community colleges rather than four-year programs.  CBP also points out in a recent statement that:

…African Americans graduate from Lower Merion (too many through social promotions and special education) and go onto college only to face the prerequisite condition that they pass remediation courses for which they do not accumulate college credit.
* African American students also have a huge SAT score gap and a Grade Point Average gap, which stunts their acceptance to the schools their peers gain admission to.
* African American girls are outperforming African American boys. Ask why!

–Concerned Black Parents, Sept. 6,2011

Folks on both sides of the debate agree that a number of tireless and inventive LMSD teachers and administrators have worked hard to redress racial and other forms of discrimination in the district. Nearly everyone acknowledges welcome results of that work. Yet, those who support the discrimination lawsuit see a public school system that nonetheless regularly consigns minority students to “substandard education.”  Meanwhile, some other people in our township detect no such pattern. That group sees the lawsuit as unfounded and as a burden on taxpayers.   The term “resegregation” has empirical value for the first contingent, but in the eyes of the second it is uncalled for and inflammatory.  I have seen defenders of LMSD policies recoil from that word at more than one neighborhood gathering on the issue.

The legal complexities of this case are many and I am in no way qualified to parse those. But as a historian of race in American education, I want to talk about the multiple meanings that “equity” has lately assumed in our township. Mapping these meanings has helped me see why CBP pursues its suit, and why lawsuits around matters of race are still needed in our country.

Clearly,  those who defend the district don’t aim to promote racial discrimination. Yet,  I’m not sure we should assume that everyone involved in the dispute really does have the same endpoint in mind. I want to suggest that for some who speak for LMSD, some basic features of the system are working just fine;  they would say those aspects of the status quo require no reform.

Here’s what I’m thinking of:

Representatives of the district, not surprisingly, routinely offer counterarguments to the charges of discrimination.  Last week, as counsel for the plaintiffs made new documents available for public viewing, Doug Young,  Lower Merion School District’s  Information  Director, spoke to media outlets about the case.  Speaking to NBC Philadelphia, as reported by David Chang, Mr. Young suggested first that there is no systemic phenomenon to discuss:

The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.

To bolster that point, Mr. Young added that the district “utilize[s] multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.”  But we could ask: If discrepancies still exist in African American achievement within LMSD schools (which nobody involved in the matter denies), by what measure has the district determined these “criteria and methods” to be working? [My STS colleagues will now be nodding and saying to themselves: “The experimenter’s regress!”]

Next Mr. Young says:

Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District.

That claim proceeds from a deeply flawed premise: That critiques of  current racial discrimination constitute a denigration of  previous minority attainments. But in what way is a search for justice a denigration of others’ attainments? How are the purported “cause” and “effect” here even connected? One might just as easily say that the CBP parents’ lawsuit adds lustre to the attainments of successful African American students because it emphasizes the inequitable conditions those kids have overcome. (Though that too would be a facile and misleading claim.)

With that last quote, Mr. Young characterizes the motives of CBP and he does so with selective logic. In turn, he characterizes LMSD, also using selective logic. He indicates that test scores for black students in the district have risen in recent years, along with enrollment by African American students in the district’s AP and Honors classes.  Those are very welcome changes. But we learn, too, that “LMSD African American graduates are attending college at nearly twice the national rate (83% in 2011).”  I would ask: Why even measure the district’s inclusivity relative to national standards?  Why not against the goal of complete parity between minority and majority students in our district? Is our goal to end discrimination, or to deflect criticism?

Remember, too, that CBP specifies that among students who constitute that 83% we have black students attending community colleges in far higher proportions than do white college-going LMSD graduates. Perhaps Mr. Young wishes to highlight progress made by the district towards racial inclusion. But he sounds a self-congratulatory note in his assertion that, “the District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits.”

The impression given by Mr. Young here is that the district has understood the problem, and done enough to address discriminationin fact, done MORE than enough,  to the point where awards are deserved.  I can see how such apparent self-assurance could undermine CBP’s  faith in the district’s commitment to eliminating further educational inequities.  Can the district’s leaders and spokespeople instead persuade us that  they see the lingering achievement gap as entirely unacceptable, every last vestige of it?  Then we may be more confident that lawsuits are not needed because educational equity, not merely a relative lack of inequity,  is LMSD’s goal.

Our Town: “Equity” in Lower Merion

I am privileged to live in a district with superb public schools. But, despite its proximity to some of the most affluent suburbs of Philadelphia and access to significant tax revenues,  this is also a school system, like so many others in the nation,  with a documented achievement gap between African American students and those of other backgrounds.  A group of parents who find that gap unacceptable and believe it to be a product of systematic discrimination have brought a lawsuit against the district.  (A request for a class action lawsuit ended with a judge’s denial in 2009, but a suit brought by eight families now moves ahead.)  These families and their supporters joined to form the non-profit Concerned Black Parents (CBP).

Things have improved in recent years, but the gap persists, according to CBP. Troubling patterns  remain:  Some African American students in the middle- and high schools of Lower Merion School District (LMSD) are finding themselves tracked into special education classes when they don’t need those interventions,  while too few black students are being enrolled in the advanced classes that would serve them well.  Disproportionately low percentages of black students in LMSD attend college.   Among those black LMSD students who do pursue post-secondary education, disproportionately high numbers head towards community colleges rather than four-year programs.  CBP also points out in a recent statement that:

…African Americans graduate from Lower Merion (too many through social promotions and special education) and go onto college only to face the prerequisite condition that they pass remediation courses for which they do not accumulate college credit.
* African American students also have a huge SAT score gap and a Grade Point Average gap, which stunts their acceptance to the schools their peers gain admission to.
* African American girls are outperforming African American boys. Ask why!

–Concerned Black Parents, Sept. 6,2011

Folks on both sides of the debate agree that a number of tireless and inventive LMSD teachers and administrators have worked hard to redress racial and other forms of discrimination in the district. Nearly everyone acknowledges welcome results of that work. Yet, those who support the discrimination lawsuit see a public school system that nonetheless regularly consigns minority students to “substandard education.”  Meanwhile, some other people in our township detect no such pattern. That group sees the lawsuit as unfounded and as a burden on taxpayers.   The term “resegregation” has empirical value for the first contingent, but in the eyes of the second it is uncalled for and inflammatory.  I have seen defenders of LMSD policies recoil from that word at more than one neighborhood gathering on the issue.

The legal complexities of this case are many and I am in no way qualified to parse those. But as a historian of race in American education, I want to talk about the multiple meanings that “equity” has lately assumed in our township. Mapping these meanings has helped me see why CBP pursues its suit, and why lawsuits around matters of race are still needed in our country.

Clearly,  those who defend the district don’t aim to promote racial discrimination. Yet,  I’m not sure we should assume that everyone involved in the dispute really does have the same endpoint in mind. I want to suggest that for some who speak for LMSD, some basic features of the system are working just fine;  they would say those aspects of the status quo require no reform.

Here’s what I’m thinking of:

Representatives of the district, not surprisingly, routinely offer counterarguments to the charges of discrimination.  Last week, as counsel for the plaintiffs made new documents available for public viewing, Doug Young,  Lower Merion School District’s  Information  Director, spoke to media outlets about the case.  Speaking to NBC Philadelphia, as reported by David Chang, Mr. Young suggested first that there is no systemic phenomenon to discuss:

The plaintiffs’ claims relate to specific, individual special education disputes from years ago. The assertion that they are somehow connected to biased treatment on the basis of race is totally without merit.

To bolster that point, Mr. Young added that the district “utilize[s] multiple criteria and methods to eliminate any potential for cultural biases.”  But we could ask: If discrepancies still exist in African American achievement within LMSD schools (which nobody involved in the matter denies), by what measure has the district determined these “criteria and methods” to be working? [My STS colleagues will now be nodding and saying to themselves: “The experimenter’s regress!”]

Next Mr. Young says:

Additionally, the suit completely ignores and even diminishes the success of African American students in Lower Merion School District.

That claim proceeds from a deeply flawed premise: That critiques of  current racial discrimination constitute a denigration of  previous minority attainments. But in what way is a search for justice a denigration of others’ attainments? How are the purported “cause” and “effect” here even connected? One might just as easily say that the CBP parents’ lawsuit adds lustre to the attainments of successful African American students because it emphasizes the inequitable conditions those kids have overcome. (Though that too would be a facile and misleading claim.)

With that last quote, Mr. Young characterizes the motives of CBP and he does so with selective logic. In turn, he characterizes LMSD, also using selective logic. He indicates that test scores for black students in the district have risen in recent years, along with enrollment by African American students in the district’s AP and Honors classes.  Those are very welcome changes. But we learn, too, that “LMSD African American graduates are attending college at nearly twice the national rate (83% in 2011).”  I would ask: Why even measure the district’s inclusivity relative to national standards?  Why not against the goal of complete parity between minority and majority students in our district? Is our goal to end discrimination, or to deflect criticism?

Remember, too, that CBP specifies that among students who constitute that 83% we have black students attending community colleges in far higher proportions than do white college-going LMSD graduates. Perhaps Mr. Young wishes to highlight progress made by the district towards racial inclusion. But he sounds a self-congratulatory note in his assertion that, “the District should be receiving awards for these efforts, not lawsuits.”

The impression given by Mr. Young here is that the district has understood the problem, and done enough to address discriminationin fact, done MORE than enough,  to the point where awards are deserved.  I can see how such apparent self-assurance could undermine CBP’s  faith in the district’s commitment to eliminating further educational inequities.  Can the district’s leaders and spokespeople instead persuade us that  they see the lingering achievement gap as entirely unacceptable, every last vestige of it?  Then we may be more confident that lawsuits are not needed because educational equity, not merely a relative lack of inequity,  is LMSD’s goal.

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.

Money Talks. (Now will it please be quiet?)

The idea that 4-year college degrees and liberal arts curricula waste students’ time and money, which I’ve lately been writing about in this blog,  is definitely spreading among those who seem most easily to get media exposure.  The recent words of Bill Gross, one of the country’s most revered bond investors,  have been heard across the land. The claims made in his company “Investment Outlook” column for July 2011, titled “School Daze, School Daze,” have been picked up widely by the business press. I saw them cited yesterday in a Philadelphia Inquirer business column piece about my own university,  “PhillyDeal: Drexel University Plans to Redirect its Expansion” (in which they were, happily for me, roundly contradicted by Drexel’s President John Fry). […and thanks to Scott Knowles for sharing the Inky article.]

When I looked into Gross’ original statement on the PIMCO (his firm) website, I went back to being unhappy. As have others in the last few months, Gross found “facts” that militate against providing the familiar college experience for many Americans. He writes off college as something that, even in a thriving economy, did little for the minds of those who attended:

…a degree represented that the graduate could “party hearty” for long stretches of time and establish social networking skills that would prove invaluable later at office cocktail parties or interactively via Facebook.

–Bill Gross, July 2011

In the face of the “erosion of our manufacturing base” going on today,  Gross sees the traditional comprehensive undergraduate immersion serving largely as a “vacation” for young people that does them, and the economy, little good. He says it is time to do away with the “stultifying and outdated”  idea of widespread enrollment in 4-year curricula. He would steer the nation towards “technical education and apprenticeship programs instead of liberal arts.”

Gross is playing an unfortunate zero-sum game with higher ed, perhaps counting the hours in the school day and finding that there just isn’t time for the seeming luxury of  humanities education.  But for a clever guy who is not entirely closed to hybrid solutions [see below],  he’s being notably uncreative here. For one thing, project-based technical learning,  centered on interdisciplinary blends of liberal arts and STEM content, is seen by many educators as the most powerful instructional approach to come along in years.  John Fry, for one,  seems to think that’s the case. He’d find  plenty of folks involved with Liberal Education at the American Society for Engineering Education to back him up, too.

In his column, Gross corrects a common error in discussions of America’s so-called lost manufacturing jobs by noting that  “high tech paragons”  like Apple, Microsoft, and Google “never were employers of high school or B.A. college graduates in significant numbers,” having sought offshore workers for hardware manufacture all along.  He also, unusually, supports a larger role for government in seeding job creation and providing job preparation for Americans:

In times of extremis, pushing on the private sector string is ineffective…Government must temporarily assume a bigger, not a smaller role in this economy, if only because other countries are dominating job creation with kick-start policies that eventually dominate global markets…

–Bill Gross, July 2011

Along these lines, citing economics and policy writer Fareed Zakaria, Gross calls for something like a new G.I. Bill focused on  “mid-tech” skills that will boost employment and productivity in the nation.  I share that belief in a larger role for government in higher ed,  but not the lowered bar.

If Gross feels that money rather than time is the problem, consider this point I’ve made before: Maximizing (rather than shrinking) opportunities for intellectual development among America’s citizens, opportunities historically provided by our institutions of higher learning,  may only seem fiscally imprudent  because we have to keep paying instead for things like wars, corporate tax-cuts and other publicly funded  undertakings that bring little long-term economic benefit.

But here’s something I haven’t really thought about before. This kind of wholesale indictment of the humanities and liberal arts in American higher education is downright nihilistic: With any perspective at all, we can see that it dismisses hundreds of thousands of hours that Americans of every class, ethnic background,  national origin, and political persuasion have spent in college classrooms, for the last 250 years, learning and thinking about human culture. To say these hours were wasted suggests a  spectacular and possibly tragic failure of imagination.

…and a failure of self-knowledge: Gross himself holds a psychology degree from Duke University (a school to which he has donated millions).  He now refers to this as his “own four year vacation.”  Does he really think his business acumen, understanding of world market behaviors, communication skills and (yes, we must say it) wide social influence today, what we might fairly call his own “social networking skills,”  have nothing to do with the things he learned as a young person at that institution? In “School Daze” Gross describes “professorial tenure” as something that stands in the way of improved productivity for the country…but I’m guessing his education at Duke included more tenured professors than adjuncts and teaching faculty.  And who exactly does he thinks generates the scientific and technical knowledge, the IP,  on which so much corporate R&D in the U.S. now relies? Adjunct instructors? Graduate teaching assistants? Nope: Tenured university professors  (absolutely all of whom started out by getting four-year bachelor’s degrees, not training as apprentices, let us add…).

Perhaps it is a case of the critic speaking about others.  Perhaps Gross feels that his talents and interests deserved the cultivation a superb college education delivered, but those of others  do not. We can’t be sure because like so many other who offer these recommendations, Gross doesn’t offer his criteria for which young people should pursue “good technical skills but limited college education.”

If  anti-higher-ed ideas like Gross’ are going to perpetuate among those of wealth and influence in our country, I’d like a little clarification, please: College is worthless…for which of us, exactly? If proponents of a diminished world of university education make that part of their thinking explicit, I think we might hear more objections from the individuals and communities consigned to mid-tech training.

Better yet, perhaps these short-sighted, elitist, and altogether less-than-constructive visions for America’s higher ed need not be shared at all.

A Hands-Off Management Style. Literally.

“I want to have as few people touching our products as possible.”

So spoke Dan Mishek, the managing director of an industrial plastic products manufacturer in Minnesota, quoted in Catherine Rampell’s NYTimes article yesterday, “Companies Spend on Equipment, Not Workers.” Why would an employer want to keep people away from its products? Germphobia? Elitism? No, just practicality: as hiring becomes increasingly expensive for industry, compared to automation and capital investment in machines in general,  more human hands , it seems, can be an unwelcome presence in the factory.

Mr. Mishek also noted that, “You don’t have to train machines.”  Or read their resumes (“It’s a huge distraction to sort though all those.”)  In essence, where humans proliferate on the shop floor, maximized productivity is threatened.

Mass-production operations have historically minimized the degree to which they depend upon workers (with their insistent human need for wages, training,  and accommodations to safety and fatigue); that’s the basic logic of industrial capitalism and once inside that logic, an employer might reasonably  feel that  no other view of hiring seems rational.  And Rampell aptly includes a single point made both  by the chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses and by the chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.  These analysts note  that with demand for products and services low in the current slow-growing economy, employers won’t be “comfortable” with any kind of investment, “human or otherwise.”

In all ways predictable sentiments, entirely consistent with good business practice in the United States.  So: Why were they featured on the front  page of the New York Times?….

Here’s where it gets interesting:  I presume because on some level,  Rampell and her editors detect that such discomforting managerial commitments, so clearly out of keeping with ostensible national priorities to put more Americans back to work,  keep fading from view.  They are perhaps obscured by the bright, shiny glare of other headlines of the moment, such as, “Obama Touts National Manufacturing Certification Program” (seen the day before in IndustryWeek.com).

According to that piece by Jonathan Katz (and thanks to Mary Ebeling for calling it to my attention), the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Institute, working with President Obama’s Skills for America’s Future,  is supporting a new program to certify half a million community college students with “skills that are critical to manufacturing operations.”  We read, as we have so often in the past year or two, that America’s pharmaceutical, aerospace and biotech sectors need people with skills not yet widely distributed among the nation’s workers, skills broadly grouped under the rubric “high-tech.”

As I’ve written here before,  new skills, many involving  knowledge of new software, applied mathematics and up-to-date machine processes, are no doubt needed by those manufacturers who do still hire, and who do still turn to American labor pools.  Obviously, new jobs are mostly going to arise in emergent industries, not in fading “low-tech” sectors.  But the power of the “minimize hiring” logic is truly immense in our society.  A “skills gap” may well exist on some level, but to picture 500,000 American workers filling such a gap would require a leap over that logic. To pursue, as the NAM’s new training program does,  so utterly uncritically the provision of newly trained manufacturing workers is to ignore the tremendous counter-forces that automation, tax incentives for capital investment, and outsourcing exert on the nation’s industrial employers.

What is more, when companies like those quoted here by Katz say they need “engineers,” are they really picturing men and women with community college credentials? Many high-tech industry folks I’ve spoken to worry about that very slippage; associate’s degrees and certificate programs are simply not providing the level of chemistry, physics and material science preparation needed in their companies’  labs or assembly operations.

I know, I know, I’m like a broken record, a virtual mass-producer of such plaints. But the disconnect is so darn pervasive! So persistent!  I can’t help but ask yet again: Can all of these high-tech-job  boosters possibly be sincere? Are they willfully naive? Why is technical modernization–high tech– constantly painted as a natural and inevitable producer of jobs for American workers, when so very much evidence to the contrary exists??  When managers like Mr. Mishek, to do their jobs well, must–let’s face it–minimize the creation of jobs for others?