Beware the Algorithm: STEM Recruitment Meets Big Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

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.

Innovate. Smile. Repeat.

Teeth pretty much gritted, I’m  collecting uses of the word “innovation” in discussions of America’s current economic malaise, convinced that the promotion of high-tech invention has become the smiley face of the new millennium:  A jolly and superficial exhortation  (“If only we innovate, things will be better!”), that has started to function as a reductive and even distracting gesture…the “Just Do It!”  of economic analysis.

To see this in action, I’d suggest looking at  this recent NPR story by Wendy Kaufman in which an entrepreneur and economist both position high-tech innovation as the answer to national unemployment.  We learn that in the clean energy sector, for example, “patent awards, and research and development spending” are growing faster in China than in the US, where a climate of fear currently discourages entrepreneurial risk-taking. The message is that if more Americans were to innovate, jobs would follow: as one of Kaufman’s  interviewees says,  “It’s something the U.S.  has to do to keep the economy growing.”  It may be true that without entrepreneurial enthusiasm job creation stalls, but it’s not necessarily true that when capital thrives, so does American labor.  (See NPR’s own interview by Guy Raz of a few days earlier, on recent  dramatic growth in American CEO salaries…in which NYTimes business editor P.J. Joshi summarizes a recent report that found widespread executive pay raises playing out while ordinary wages stay low and unemployment and layoffs persist.) Like so many others,  this invocation of innovation makes knowledge, not policy, the social problem and solution…the call is once again for brain work, not political reform, and innovative federal policies that might incentivize domestic job creation (and grapple with the unidirectional flow of corporate profits upward) go unmentioned.

I know I’ve made this exact point before, but NPR and many other media outlets have talked about innovation in this uncritical way before, too. Kaufman’s piece, here, is strangely brief, almost telegraphic…And the more pervasive, the more routine such instructions to innovate  become in American culture and media, the more I want to understand the allure of that project.

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.

Our Possible Selves

I’ve been watching the spread of a troubling recessionary idea: That sending fewer Americans to college will solve our economic problems.

In STEM fields, this is part of the whole “skills gap” story so popular in talk about education-for-jobs today…the notion that in order for the nation to thrive, we need more people who prepare  to be technicians or mechanics in high-tech sectors like bio- or nanotech, and really, for all kinds of mid-level technology based jobs. (Here’s  one example of skills gap logic, from Austin, Texas,  but really, it is so pervasive a notion among workforce planners and educators now that I’m actually willing to say: Just Google it.)

As the new STEM programming in that Austin high school indicates, anxiety about the skills gap can bring new resources to STEM teaching, enriching instruction and encouraging kids to enter those fields. But when those worried about an inadequate  industrial labor pool call for more enrollment in sub-baccalaureate education or on-the-job training as the answer, some unfortunate differentials in educational opportunities seem to strengthen.

For example, the  “Pathways to Prosperity” report, which came out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education earlier this year, essentially tells us that too many Americans are aspiring to 4-year degrees, evidenced by high drop-out rates among 4-year college students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Some significant number of young Americans will be better off, we can assume,  if they give up on the idea of pursuing a 4-year degree, thus saving expenditures of money and time that are unlikely to lead them to secure employment.

By extension, we may understand that there are methods by which those who “shouldn’t” attend college can be identified before they make the error of trying to do so.  I see this outlook as one that (intentionally or not) helps to justify the historic under-representation of poorer Americans (who often grow up in communities with poorer schools) in 4-year colleges and graduate programs.

Take this justification from “Pathways To Prosperity”  for “diversifying” the post-secondary paths we offer to young people in this country:

Behaving as though four-year college is the only acceptable route to success clearly still works well for many young adults, especially students fortunate enough to attend highly selective colleges and universities. It also works well for affluent students, who can often draw on family and social connections to find their way in the adult world. But it clearly does not work well for many, especially young men…Similarly, among the low-income and young people of color who will make up an increasing portion of the workforce of the future, this single route does not work well either. [p. 13]

Thus: Who shouldn’t aspire to 4-year colleges? Those who have historically done poorly in that setting. Those without social and family connections. Who happen to be those from less affluent backgrounds. Or from historically disadvantaged minority communities.    …So much for asking the hard questions about economic attainment in America.

The Pathways report holds the promise of some interesting K-12 reforms, helping students who might otherwise lose their way benefit  from personalized, well planned, well resourced education.  But why have community college, rather than university, enrollment as the goal for these students? Why do the Harvard authors think it is a good step forward for the nation to discard the “college for all” model that has shaped our public education system for generations?

I don’t know, but invoking national workforce needs as a reason seems not a little circular to me, and  I think we should be asking if some larger economic system is sustained by that aim.  Ronald Ferguson, an author of the report who spoke to a gathering at the Penn Institute for Urban Research a few weeks ago, put the report’s message thusly (as reported on the Penn IUR website):

Ferguson argues that children will be able to “accumulate a menu of possible selves” and to see that “all work is honorable.”

“A menu of possible selves”?  It would almost sound like poetry if it didn’t seem so calculated to make a non-issue of inequity in education. And, “all work is honorable”?  Though I have absolutely no reason to think Ferguson intended this effect here, that phrase historically has naturalized the least democratic features of our economic system. It has too often been used to placate those in our society who hold the most tedious, dangerous, and difficult jobs.

Here’s the thing: If we strived to make all jobs in America as remunerative, safe, interesting and growthful as possible for those who hold them, such exhortations might not be necessary.

If that kind of deep, redistributive societal reform is not on the menu of economic and educational strategists today,  perhaps we are really talking about pathways to prosperity for those who already have sure routes to that destination.

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?

Innovation? Check. Change? Not so much.

If President Obama was an ordinary orator, I’d be placing bets on the number of times “innovation,” “education” and just plain “technology” will come up in the State of the Union tonight…with side-bets on “future” and “tomorrow.” But as an eloquent stylist, he’ll likely avoid the sort of redundancy that makes for good speech-based gambling fun. (Or, in livelier social circles than mine, drinking games…or so I’ve heard). But I am worried that the generally uncritical invocation of those terms that has typified his rhetoric in the last year will continue this evening.

I’ll be back here tomorrow with some (I promise) constructive responses to the address. In the meantime, here’s my latest basis for fretting.

There’s just been announced a new initiative intended by the White House and Department of Labor to boost Americans’ readiness for higher-tech jobs, the  Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program.  It will provide $2 billion over the next 4 years to support the creation of educational and training programs in areas likely to offer jobs to those no longer finding work in, say, manufacturing or assembly. It is meant to coordinate very closely the activities of educational institutions with the current labor and skill needs of industry, to the benefit of employees and employers alike:

“The grant program will expand opportunities for workers by: accelerating progress and reducing time to completion; improving retention and achievement rates; building instructional programs that meet industry needs; and strengthening online and technology-enabled learning.”

Here’s the amazing part: The entire initiative is based on the idea that the curricular and training materials produced with the funding will be disseminated as OPEN source materials. Yes, that’s right:  free, online, to anyone who wishes to make use of them. This is a very promising step, aimed at leveraging the ingenuity and energy of  individual educators for the widest possible impact.  To repeat: That’s not trickle down we’re talking about, where the market success of a few is meant to bring benefits to many, but leveraging.

But (and you know what’s coming), let’s think about it…What jobs, exactly, will await those who receive training with these new materials? What technology-based jobs, today, will take shape on these shores, when industry feels so little reason to turn away from the lower-wage labor pools of other nations? When these announcements actually start to hold the names of firms committed to keeping manufacturing and assembly operations on U.S. shores, and of government programs that provide reasons for them to do so, I’ll get excited.

Innovation is not enough.  As we speak,  highly touted green-tech jobs, like those created in Massachusetts with state support at Evergreen Solar, are heading overseas. As Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago,  owners of that company built a new plant in 2008, employing 800 people, but a year later they were in talks with a Chinese manufacturer. In September 2010 the firm opened its factory in Wuhan, China, and 800 jobs-of-the-future  in Massachusetts were no more.

Yes, China could offer Evergreen cutting edge technologies that made its solar production plants more economically attractive for Evergreen.  Yes, that was partly due to China’s innovative engineers and manufacturers.  But Evergreen’s move was also due to the fact that creating and sustaining jobs in the U.S. had no obvious benefit for the firm’s owners; they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by saying good-bye to 800 American employees.

So: I welcome the new training and education grant program. I’m all for evidence of the “new era of hope” (as Hilda Solis and Arne Duncan labeled the initiative), since President Obama’s first era of hope hasn’t been too , um, hopeful.  Mostly, I’d like to hear such workforce policies tied to solid reforms in outsourcing and trade policies, so the hard work of educators and good faith of students who enroll in tech training programs have hope of being rewarded.  Unfortunately, I’m betting we won’t hear that tonight. But “Sputnik”? You bet!