“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.

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!

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.

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!

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.

Atop the Turbine: A Fine View of Community College

 

Students stand at the foot of the Iowa Lakes CC Wind Turbine, in Duracell's adAs we start to see more daily reminders of the critical importance of  junior and community colleges in American job creation and equity –as the recession slogs on without promised new jobs, as the White House actively supports 2-year education–it will be interesting to see how explicitly (or not)  industries associate themselves with this type of education…long treated by many sectors of American culture as marginal to “real” higher ed, and certainly as remote from tech-sector R&D.  Take a look at an interesting artifact of the 2010 American economy: An ad produced by Duracell that celebrates, in as slick a marketing effort as you’ll see anywhere,  a community college program for training wind-turbine technicians.

This has to be one of the only times a community college has appeared in a mass-media marketing campaign, let alone hit our screens in such an unremittingly positive light.  (Surely we don’t count the NBC sit-com “Community”as boosterism, as funny and sympathetic as its misfit characters might be?  With every ethnicity, gender and age group given its own embarassing under-achiever? Its own diagnosable-if-warm-hearted representative in the world of 2-year education?)  The Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program of  Iowa Lakes Community College , in Duracell’s hands, comes across as exciting and cutting edge. The turbine is magnificent, standing tall against the sun-drenched countryside, as uniformed student/workers in hardhats and coveralls high atop the structure test its voltage.

From Duracell's video of Iowa Lakes CC Wind Turbine

 Not surprisingly, we are told that the students do this by using Duracell-battery powered voltage meters. And the ad is hardly breaking new visual ground: it looks and sounds a bit like recent fast-cut, emotionally uplifting military recruiting ads. But using those images and techniques, the ad makes it clear that this technical work is both physically challenging and intellectually rewarding, not to mention of vital national interest, as a child driving by stares up in wonder at the spinning turbine. If this ad draws more students to training in sustainable technologies, that alone would count as a contribution by Duracell.  If it draws away some of the stigma of community colleges among university-educated Americans, even better.

I have a couple of concerns about the ad:  I think I spotted one or two female students standing in a group shot (see above); hard to tell, though, and why were none visible among the confering meter-wielders, or  intrepid turbine-climbing technicians, that make up most of the video?  Finally, Duracell fudges more than a few environmental issues to associate itself here with the values of sustainability.  Do we really want to promote wind energy as a way to expand our already excessive use of energy? The child in the ad cools herself with a battery-powered miniature fan, as she sits inside a moving car!  Why not just open a window to the turbine-powering breezes obviously blowing outside?  But for the moment, confining ourselves to the image of community colleges, let’s think about what Duracell’s addition of a culturally marginalized institution to the glossy, green television landscape might well do to help chip away at  that marginality.