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?