Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Which Job Market Are We Talking About?

I had one of those moments of cognitive dissonance this week, when I was at a meeting trying to establish a regional consortium to prepare workers for a particular industry.

The 'industry' people who were there were anxious to form partnerships with cc's to prepare entry-level workers. Most of the cc's there were eager, too, since our students want jobs, and we would love to be able to tell them truthfully that a given program is highly likely to lead to a solid job. (That's already the case in the Nursing program, which is why it has to turn away many more students than it accepts.)

I didn't share the enthusiasm of the group, though, and it took me the drive home to figure out why.

The industry in question is concentrated heavily in a different part of the state. The students at my cc, and they aren't unusual in this, generally like to stay local. They want jobs, but they want the jobs to be local.

What makes that tricky is that some of the locally-stronger industries are in national decline. They still need employees in certain areas, and periodically hire our grads, but the overall trend line is pretty clear. For argument's sake, it's like the last remaining dot-matrix printer company is local, and it needs a steady, if declining, flow of new people trained in dot-matrix technology. The local students want jobs, and would be happy (in the short term) to get those jobs. Should we train them for a dying industry? Or should we focus on industries that are growing elsewhere, but that aren't really here yet?

Those of us (okay, I'm a nerd, I admit it) who remember the debates over “industrial policy” have learned a knee-jerk aversion to the idea of “picking winners.” Supposedly, it's arrogant to substitute one's own judgment for the all-knowing market. Of course, one could also argue that it's criminally shortsighted not to notice larger national and international trends. (One could also argue that the market is, itself, the sum of individual judgments, so it's a bit of a false dichotomy.) Take Kodak as an example. As recently as the 90's, Kodak looked like an indestructible behemoth; now, with digital photography having rendered film obsolete for most purposes, Kodak is a shell of its former self. Training people for Kodak seemed to make sense just a short time ago; now it would be insane. My suspicion is that some of our local industries are roughly where Kodak was around, say, 1998. They're still chugging, but I wouldn't place bets on their continued viability. But the new stuff hasn't come around yet to replace it, and it's always possible that my suspicion is wrong.

It would be easy to favor the new over the old if we had enough of the new stuff locally to make the argument plausible. But we don't. So we're in the weird position of either asking our students to take skills and move away, or to acquire skills with what is likely to be a terribly finite lifespan to stay local.

Although we like to talk about a national or global economy, for many of our students, the economy that's relevant to them is the one within a half-hour radius. That local economy may or may not reflect (yet) the larger global trends. Telling our students that there are great jobs several hours away in an industry they've never seen before is just too abstract for many of them.

The educator in me sees this as a teachable moment, and in a way, it is. Provincialism is a form of ignorance, and in certain ways, it's curable. But it's not just a question of ignorance. Family ties are real, and personal history is not to be taken lightly. CC students in particular often come bundled with family obligations, local ties, and various reasons to stay local; that's part of what makes cc's unique. The “community” part of “community college” shouldn't just be rhetorical. But what do you do when the economy of the local community is on the losing side of a much larger trend?

Even when you're prepping them for transfer these seem to be concerns. My students, yes, wanted a 4-yr degree, but were only going 30 minutes away to earn it, were planning to commute, and wanted to stay local.

Even though the job-base was dying with nothing new on the horizon.
I dunno, DD. I'm sure most of your students do want to stay local, but some of them might very well want to leave at some point, and many more might consider it if there's a good job waiting. Since your consortium will register only a minority of the students at your college anyway, let the kids self-select.

I think it's also important to give cc students an idea that there's a bigger world out there. I'm from a blue-collar family, probably much like the families that raised many of your students, and blue-collar folks do indeed tend to stay more place-bound. (I am, in fact, that rarest of creatures: a sessile academic.) I don't know why, but it might have to do with the importance of personal relationships vs. resumes in blue-collar professions.

I think there's a benefit to giving kids from those backgrounds the opportunity to think about whether they might want to move away a little bit. Especially since we're talking an intra-state move, which means that you don't need a plane ticket to go home and see the 'rents every once in a while. It's not breaking the cord, just stretching it a little bit.
The other option - and certainly not one you can work on yourself but could be part of the movement - is to train the students for jobs that may not be available yet locally and then use the (potential) talent pool as a way to attract businesses to the local area. That seems more in line with the mission of the CC to support the community.

As ever, cogent analysis and penetrating insights. I don't have an "answer" answer, but I do have a response, from a 4-year/university-admin perspective. The particular field I teach (academic musicology) has a relatively slow turnover and a relative dearth of new openings annually. In response, whenever a new student (grad candidate, undergrad considering grad work) asks, I try to have a one-to-one conversation about long-term goals and, particularly, about the actual day-to-day content of a working musicologist's life. This provides the opportunity for the student to think twice about investing the time and cost to gain the necessary degrees.

I do not try to "talk them out of it," but I do try to make sure, to the best of my ability, that they have an accurate understanding of the realities of both the job and the job market. Once I've done that, it's up to the candidate to decide if cost/benefit/relocation ratios are satisfactory in her or his case.

Seems a reasonably appropriate way to balance "mentoring" versus "second-guessing" the student.
I think it's also important to consider the fact that local businesses have an interest in CCs training an overabundance of potential workers. That keeps the supply up of workers up and demand down--and wages--down.

Like DD, I wonder if it's a good idea to train folks for bad jobs. My SoCal CC has a huge child development program which generates lots of income for the school. But when people get their Early Childhood Education certificates, they're only going to get minimum-wage jobs. So just who are we serving?

A young relative of mine who lives 1 1/2 hours away took a welding course four years ago. In his area there was a need for welders at that time. He could have gone to a vo-tech and taken courses for a different trade which would have been in demand in our city. His mom didn't want him to leave their area and he didn't want to either. Well, four years later he is a good welder with no job. So he gets to come live with us (which he could have done four years ago), or he will have to find another job in his area outside of welding. Meanwhile he spent money for training which is literally useless for future employment purposes and he may end up doing what he could have done years ago. He had a choice.

The point? Offer them the training which will get them jobs. They are adults. They can make the decision whether to take it and leave or not take it and stay. They are adults. They will not get the training if the cc doesn't offer it. The cc making the decision to not offer job training to them because they might have to move away could be interpreted as patronizing and does not offer them or their families any choice, but only a possible dead end.
Can the CC be proactive in helping drive new industry and jobs to the area through partnerships? Can the CC be proactive in discussing with local government broader strategies for attracting jobs to the area?
Post, in every place imaginable, the salaries and number of persons employed in the positions in question. If you want people to make good decisions, it's best to give them good information. Information you have and they don't.
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