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?

Our Borders, Ourselves?: Rethinking China’s Test Scores

Be Afraid: China’s “stellar” performance on recent standardized tests, described in yesterday’s New York Times (“Top Test Scores from Shanghai Stun Educators,” by Sam Dillon), is apparently another sign that America is being “out-educated.”  We are at our very own “Sputnik” moment, President Obama tells us, our nation once again threatened by the academic attainments of another.  Only a vast increase in our educational efforts (and in our anxiety, apparently), can correct this dire situation, according to a host of  commentators who have lately weighed in on the matter. Disaster looms: The Test Scores Prove It.

It’s pretty much axiomatic that where standardized test results are invoked for political purposes, arguments will be reductive.  And if we already suspected that the prevailing Sinophobia was about as well thought out as a toddler’s tantrum, last week the writers of “The Office” confirmed it: Can anyone seriously hold onto a geopolitical perspective once  it’s come from the mouth of the supremely illogical, trend-riding, Newsweek-wielding, Michael Scott?

Unfortunately, in the real world of STEM education, sound bites about our national science and math deficiencies continue to inhibit creative reform. We are our own worst enemies.

First, how much of this political fretting about U.S. intellectual inadequacy relative to China, India and other economically rising nations has included plans to implement the steps that educators know would improve math and science education in America? For example,  vastly increasing teachers’ training opportunities and salaries, expanding public school budgets and facilities, and instituting rewards for post-secondary STEM faculty who make teaching their priority?  Hand waving and furrowed brows we have, meaningful interventions, not so much…I guess the tax hikes such reforms would require are even scarier than China’s growing mental might.

 Second, as I wrote here a few weeks ago, citing David Sirota’s  insightful commentary,  those who most anxiously demand a more highly skilled American workforce almost universally omit any mention of the powerful disincentives that global wage structures (the worldwide “race to the bottom”),  including American policies that support the outsourcing of industrial labor, offer to just this sort of educational expansion on our own shores.  President Obama’s way too smart to have missed the connection here but he apparently fears to tread on corporate toes by calling those policies into question; sadly, the more tidily packaged White House jobs and training  initiatives become (“Skills For America’s Future”? As opposed to what?),  the more I worry about that reluctance.

Finally, the idea that China’s educational growth is best framed as a problem for America (or at the very least, a “wake-up call,” according to Arne Duncan)  is downright depressing.  Not only are Cold War-worthy nationalistic sentiments fueled with these kinds of comparisons (“It’s our brains against theirs!”), with not a small racial element easily following on that fear (“It’s our brains against THEIRS!?”) …but any vision of collective innovation or shared scientific priorities among nations is also completely suppressed.  We have our brains, they have theirs.  Promoting trade linkages is one thing, but intellectual collectivities across countries, let alone hemispheres?  Too touchy-feely, too retro, too soft for a time when America’s military-industrial powers are “at risk.”

No coincidence, of course,  that science-based challenges like sustainable production, a halt to global warming, worldwide health improvements, and a reduction in world hunger (all of which would  realign flows of global capital and power) would best be met through concerted multi-nation address.   Sorry: There will be no team projects on this syllabus.

But even from a less radical ideological stance,  global scientific competition just seems like such a stale idea, no? So 20th century! Instead, I wonder: Why not throw a big, inclusive, pot-luck Invention Party for brains both Chinese and American? What about massive student and teacher exchanges?  Global summits for excited 8th graders, or innovative engineers, or creative public health experts, or start-uppers and garage tinkerers of all nations?  

Of course, we have vast differences in our national values and interests; China’s STEM attainments are achieved in a society less open than our own.  Industrial capitalism shakes out with a huge variety of undemocratic results; we can chart these in every nation where it has been tried and they are of course not all equivalent.  Very messy stuff, morally: As Scott Gabriel Knowles wrote recently after a visit to Shanghai’s World Expo, modernization today is, as it always has been, all things to all cultures as each strives to sustain its own cultural priorities, 2010’s globally shared ideals of material accumulation and flourishing financial networks notwithstanding.  

But can’t we imagine scientific and technological activity, approached carefully, critically, and equitably, transcending some of this nation-centered self-interest?  If math and science have any progressive social potential at all (and yes, that’s a big “if”),  surely earnest transnational exchanges could nurture that potential, no? Couldn’t our governments, universities and even corporate R&D labs try to pool global capacities for discovery and invention, rather than just insistently sorting and delineating which nation does what better? Perhaps using the heightened educational attainments of a given nation as a shared benchmark, for shared educational and knowledge-creating goals? 

 Probably not. Because as the many very worried voices in the Times piece show, that’s not really why such standardized testing regimes come to be. Because that’s not why we quantify and rank educational achievements. Because the whole idea of collaboration and the pursuit of mutual good is no more likely for nations comparing their standardized test scores than for high schoolers.  It’s every brain for itself.

On Being Retro

From "H.R. Pufnstuf," Gold Key Comics, April 1971

A page from a kids’ comic book,  1971…a single, marvelous page illustrated in a way that brings home the gendered nature of American work in that era. For boys, a future in drafting. For girls, jobs as librarians. Interesting, too, that we can tell at a glance that this is an artifact of an earlier era. From the typeface to the clothes, details date these images. 

What’s more, there are assuredly more female draftspersons and male librarians now than there were when this comic was published. If this same page appeared today with the genders reversed we might notice something a bit unusual, but the images would not ring false.

And yet, in the past  few weeks, attending a range of educator events focused on expanding STEM opportunities in the U.S.,  I’ve heard remarks  about gender differences that would not have been out of place when this comic book hit the newsstand.  Old presumptions about identity in America endure even in settings dedicated to ending discrimination in education and hiring.  Different competencies and opportunities are still easily connected to different genders, races and ethnicities in our culture.  For example, in workshops focused on diversity and inclusion in higher education, I’ve lately heard such characterizations of housework (mentioned as a kind of labor appropriately left up to wives);  engineering (described, as a career option, with exclusively male pronouns),  and the history of engineering (noted as a surprising choice of subject matter for a female social scientist, or, and I quote, “…for a girl.”).

Any of those comments could also have been made in 1971, and they probably immediately strike a lot of us as being on the more retro end of things.  Perhaps more subtle are the comments that could only have been made in our post-civil rights era.  For instance, I recently heard an engineering  instructor, eager to draw in under-represented groups, nonetheless claim that explicit mentions of race or gender relations in an engineering classroom of 2010 will “stigmatize women and minority students all over again.”  He was concerned that conversations about student identities might also lead minority STEM students to feel that their only role within the university is to fulfill unwritten quotas.  From this vantage point, attention to minority experiences may be  just fine when it arises outside of the lab or classroom or office (as perhaps was not widely the case before 1970 or so),  but still creates problems when it arises within those spaces.

The idea that a dominant majority culture plays a role in legitimating those very spaces of STEM practice? Defining eligibility for and occupational equity in STEM fields? Perhaps protecting its own privileges in the process?  Not things that can easily be discussed in settings that customarily claim to exclude matters of identity.  And if whiteness generally goes unmarked in places of science and engineering, non-whiteness is at the same time selectively deployed.  I have heard several university administrators  invoke the documented entrance of more Asian and South Asian students into STEM fields in recent years as evidence that science and engineering are essentially merit based. But such ascriptions of ability, group-based with little thought as to how we define groups, or ability for that matter,  are perhaps part of the problem.

 Again, every one of the speakers I’ve cited here wants to support fairness and inclusivity in STEM.  How do we increase our reflexivity, so remarks like these can be seen as holding back that kind of progress?

We need to shed a bright light on race and gender discrimination, not cast that subject as a distant, historical concern.  A step in this direction would be for me to respond to well-meaning but discriminatory remarks right when I hear them in STEM workshops, rather than be flummoxed into complicit silence until I reach the safety of a blog screen.  Probably, the difficulty of confronting such ideologies within their institutional homes itself bears historical analysis.  Not least important: My role as a participant-observer in these events is murky, my own race and gender hugely meaningful.  But in any case, social awkwardness,  other- or self-imposed, showed itself to be a powerfully conservative social force when I looked back on my silence…a silence both retro and regrettable.

Thanks, Mr. Begley, Jr.!

Just how cool is it when, as happened at the White House last week,  President Obama gives  a shout out to technical programs in community colleges?–after all, the guy  has actually met the Mythbusters! But for sheer celebrity glamor, I’ll take Ed Begley, Jr.’s blog over a White House Summit any day.

A staunch advocate and very public practitioner of green living, and community college alumnus, Begley draws our attention here to The SEED Center, an initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges that consolidates national efforts to promote green-tech training.  I’m guessing that most Huffington Post readers don’t normally see a lot of excited talk about technical education and Begley puts the topic, at least for a blog-minute, before us with palpable enthusiasm.

I don’t know…Maybe it was Obama’s invocation during the Summit of  Home Depot and The Gap  as optimal sites of economic opportunity for community college graduates.  Sure: Corporate engagement with community college initiatives like the White House’s new  Skills for America’s Future might be better than nothing, an acknowledgment that whole communities in the nation are without significant training and employment opportunities.  But these are companies predicated on the perpetuation of many low-skilled jobs and highly stratified workplaces, not to mention on the utterly unsustainable premise of limitless consumption.  Somehow Begley’s excitement about community college training for jobs in clean energy enterprises came off as more thoughtful and even more earnest than the President’s.

We don’t want to lose track of the questions we have about such boosterism (see this blog’s past postings).  Other supposedly booming sectors, like biotech and nanotech, have not yet fulfilled their promises of considerably widened economic opportunity.  And care is needed when we think about “green work”: Not all green enterprise makes conservation as much of a priority as one might hope, as this commercial sector by definition pursues economic growth through new energy-related goods and services.

I also continue to wonder why community colleges and universities can’t together restructure technical occupations so more jobs involve more creativity. Why should community college grads “build and operate” wind turbines while engineers do the designing? Surely there are ways to integrate these stages of technical work to produce more effective technologies and more jobs with real creative depth and greater  promise of economic mobility.

But if we are going to stretch the 15 minutes of fame currently being experienced by America’s community colleges into lasting educational, economic and environmental reform,  supportive gestures like Ed Begley, Jr.’s will certainly help!

What is College For? An NPR moment…

A major report came out of Georgetown University yesterday, stressing the necessity for a “closer fit” between industrial workforce needs and the design of higher ed curricula in the U.S.   I don’t quite see how this (not terribly new) recommendation promises much lasting good for either workers or employers: hasn’t industry been trying to minimize the proportion of its workers who are equipped with the maximum amounts of skill… for the last 150 years? Isn’t this why the globalized outsourcing of labor grows by the day? Why exactly would industry ideas of optimized workforce preparation lead to unlimited opportunities for American students? The report’s main author, Anthony Carnevale,  explicitly endorses, if with a shrug of regret, a tiered educational system.  Hmmm…  

For the author’s take, and my own reactions, listen to The Takeaway on NPR this morning.  More from both of us also appears in an Inside Higher Ed piece.

Bad News/Good News/Bad News

I could be projecting here,  but it seems to me that 2-year colleges are getting a lot more media attention these days.  The coverage brings bad news or good news by the day, depending on how you see the role of higher ed in America.

On the worrying side of things for me is a growing conservative enthusiasm for sub-baccalaureate education.  These are voices that tell us that “too many” people are going to college these days…these students are apparently wasting their own time and money, and tax dollars that go to colleges and universities,  since they are destined to become blue-collar or service workers unlikely to “make use” of costly bachelor’s degrees.  

When I first heard  Charles Murray’s  claims along these lines a couple of years ago (particularly a talk called “Education Myths,” hosted by the Cato Institute), I blanched but figured he was just going about his usual essentialist and terribly elitist business (after all, in The Bell Curve he and Richard Herrnstein famously made this kind of deeply discriminatory argument many times over).

But other voices are now joining Murray’s.  The New York Times offered us “Plan B: Skip College”  by Jacques Steinberg yesterday, about educators and analysts who share Murray’s distaste for the expenditure of higher-ed resources on citizens they deem to be lesser lights.

Apparently, we can predict that certain folks won’t get much out of a university education, even before they enroll, and we should stop them in their tracks. Plus, America ostensibly needs workers with the less sophisticated, pared down skill sets that efficiently designed, short, vocational training courses of study might provide…Now that’s a nation aiming high!

Steinberg’s piece did acknowledge that those making such arguments are “touching a third rail of the education system” (a choice of words that unfortunately makes anyone who disagrees with the conservatives sound dangerous and shocking, but still…).   The real good news is that innovative educators are today creating  community colleges programs motivated precisely by inclusion.  InsideHigherEd.com offers us “Taking the Long View,”  by David Moltz, describing transfer-oriented technical programs at 2-year colleges. 

I am quoted in that piece, but the valuable lessons it holds are provided by faculty and administrators from Greenfield Community College, in Massachusetts. That school aims to maximize, not minimize, students’ prospects in technical occupations, by gearing them almost exclusively towards preparation for transfer to 4-year engineering programs. 

Requiring more courses, instructors and facilities,  this is a more costly route, indeed, than limiting opportunities of certain demographic groups to trades training or terminal sub-baccalaureate curricula.  But only in a very short-term fiscal sense.  Simply put, transfer-focused agendas at community colleges promise America a workforce of greater productive potential, not to mention diversity,  than we have ever achieved in this country.

Alas, now back to the bad news: Inside Higher Ed reports this morning that community colleges are facing severe cuts in state and local funding, perhaps an unsurprising  byproduct of federal reductions in support for education and other public services  in recent years.  Many of the functions for community colleges that Obama himself has endorsed,  for drawing larger numbers of Americans into higher ed and improving workforce preparedness,  it is clear, are going to have a harder time than ever sustaining themselves.

Nuclear Jobs: Where More is Less…

Renaissance job? (From www.photosfan.com)

In a special section aptly titled, “The Business of Green” (April 22, 2010), the New York Times  gave itself over this week to a story on the resurgence of nuclear power and the “many thousands” of new jobs shortly to be created as the country’s 104 existing nuclear power plants and 27 proposed new facilities gear up for a “nuclear renaissance” (“The New Jobs in Atomic Energy,” by Steve Lohr).   We read that community colleges are playing a big role in the production of this new workforce, with the Nuclear Energy Institute  (an industry group) setting up partnerships with 52 schools to train nuclear technicians, some of whom will find jobs with starting salaries of $50,000.  Skilled, well-paying jobs, in a growing industry: All good, right?

Well, let’s think about it.  Job creation is a good thing, and a two-year degree can be a wonderful gateway into a STEM career.  But the uncritical views of the educators, civic planners, and nuclear industry reps recorded in this piece suggest that concerns about the huge environmental and safety risks of nuclear energy are not just fading in America, but that they were never very deeply held. Lohr summarizes that nuclear power, “so long anathema to environmentalists,” is “increasingly seen as clean energy.”  He does not make clear that  in most cases, the folks who currently see nuclear options as clean (the NEI’s subtitle is “Clean Air Energy) are not the same ones who have long studied and worried about these technologies. 

The National Resources Defense Council, for example, points out that while nuclear power brings lower emissions than carbon and other combustion- related air pollutants, nuclear plants still involve huge efforts at heat dissipation, the challenge of safely depositing spent fuels, and other processes that are extraordinarily burdensome on the environment.  Residential sprawl near nuclear plants, increased risks of terrorist acts, and other recent developments  make some long-standing worries of environmentalists more compelling than ever. And beyond our shores, uranium mining and milling in other countries (where the bulk of the uranium we need is found) are often conducted with very high health and safety risks to workers and those who live near these operations. Oddly, another article in the same section of the Times that day, (Edging Back to Nuclear Power, by Matthew L. Wald) even mentions some of these anxieties.

I think  Lohr’s labeling of the skills now needed by nuclear technicians as “computer-age”  (as the plants shift from older analog “levers and switches” to digital control systems) makes the whole idea of new nuclear jobs seem even rosier, reaffirming Americans’ persistent sense that where high-tech goes, safety and reliability will follow.  The article’s quotes from those who have found new jobs in the nuclear industry, or who are training now for such jobs, are moving: That a family can finally afford to buy a home is gratifying.  That young people will get technical training for lifelong employment? Also wonderful. But why in nuclear, rather than in solar, wind and other sustainable and far less risky technologies?  That question is suppressed, not answered, when we focus only on the number of jobs nuclear plants might produce. And, yes, we can “have it all”: jobs AND sustainability, safety, and even industrial profits…as long as we openly and honestly assess the benefits and risks of the energy and employment choices before us.

Confronting Convention, Achieving Inclusion

An article by Tamar Lewin this week in the New York Times (front page, no less),  “For Students at Risk, Early College Proves a Draw”,  deserves a close read.  The title alone signals the unusually progressive outlook of the program described in the piece; “At risk” kids and “early college” opportunities? A rare combination. 

Normally, as the article notes, small classes, long-term curricular planning, and accelerated and intensive programming in America are reserved for high school students with proven academic abilities.  I would add that this is the classic m.o. of many honors colleges, as well as of initiatives that seek out and support the talented, underreresented minority high school students said to be “missing” from undergraduate STEM programs.  And that may work for those students who have already found a way to succeed in school and display their energy and talents.  But the Early College High School Initiative, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other prominant funders, breaks with convention: It gives more resources,  more opportunities to students with fewer conventional attainments…the ones we perhaps never even thought of as missing.  The intervention seems to work: Drop out rates plunge, the number of college degrees grows, among students in the Early College High Schools.

In the Early College High Schools, 20,000 students in 24 states undertake college-focussed classes to complete both high school and a large number of college courses in five years, at no cost.  The initiative’s website tells us that 2/3 of those students are African American and Latino.  I’m not sure how I feel about the organization’s catchy emphasis on “challenge not remediation,” since remediation can also offer a politically progressive educational approach.  But the initiative is,  at least on the surface, a welcome confrontation to the ways in which ideas  of merit usually function in our educational system…and I’ll be looking for that aim in other initiatives supported by these patrons.

Philadelphia Inquirer Op-Ed

For a quick take on my focus in matters of STEM education, take a look at an op-ed I wrote that appears in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.  I hope the piece will call attention to a couple of issues that don’t often make it into discussions of STEM equity. First,   I want to stress that we could spend much more money on programs for many more students, to vastly enlarge the number of young people who have a chance to move from weaker highschools into full-fledged STEM degree programs.
But I also want to ask why STEM interventions for disadvantaged communities of students  have remained relatively small, so I want to think long and hard about the sheer stubbornness of our familiar ideas about talent.  Why is it so hard for us to shake the feeling that there is such a thing in certain individuals as “true” math or science ability,  that will surface even in the most disadvantaged educational circumstances?  That kind of intuitive but deeply mistaken idea can undermine reform in powerful ways. It makes the small scale of STEM programs in poorer communities seem reasonable. Do our presumptions of racial, gender, and other innate differences keep giving that idea its life? Seems so…

MIT’s Report on Race and Diversity: A Template for Change?

MIT has just issued a lengthy report on its hiring and promotion of underrepresented minority faculty, a document several years in the making.  I will be writing more about this report in the next few days, trying to put it in historical perspective.  MIT may be one-of-a-kind, sitting well above almost every other technical institution in the country, but my first glances suggest that as I read it I’ll be thinking about how this report might shift thinking on diversity in other STEM higher ed settings.  Here’s why:

Like most other documents on diversity in STEM fields, this report works from the premise that because valuable science is produced by a pool of talented personnel, racial equity is desirable because it will enlarge that pool.  But at the same time, unusually, the report bluntly acknowledges that notions of scientific talent are themselves sometimes subject to biases. Even more promising, the report grants that something about science makes its institutions uniquely resistant to social reform:

Findings suggest, further, that in the MIT culture which embraces the scientific ethos — and claims that science is itself beyond identity and race — race, racialization and racism, or the perception of them, are very difficult for many to recognize, address and discuss honestly.

These kinds of acknowledgments are vital if a STEM diversity effort is to have an authentic social justice agenda.  And they are rare in educational policy and university self-studies, not least because they hint that exclusive venues gain their status in part from…exclusion. If MIT’s new report really does dig deeply into the ways that self-proclaimed meritocracies perpetuate social exclusion, it can have important ripple effects.  More soon on the report’s overall handling of these provocative ideas…