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.

Women and Work: A Defining Moment

A surprising couple of weeks for public discourse on the role of work in our lives…. I wouldn’t have thought that so many people had so many strong opinions about women and work (which of course means, about ALL of us and work), and  I’m glad to see that Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent  Atlantic piece has created a perfect storm of  debates about gender, work, family, and class ideologies in the U.S.  As Joan Williams wrote on Huffingtonpost, Slaughter has
“peeled the band-aid off the open wound of American womanhood.” I blogged about Slaughter’s piece and some much-needed historical context for the debate today at PACHS.net. Let’s keep the conversation going.

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!