Friday, June 19, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Picking Winners

A new correspondent writes:

With all this talk about green jobs and the more than usual
uncertainty about the shape of the future job market, I've been
curious of late about how community college deans, departments, and
counselors cope with the issue of occupational forecasting.

While I'm guessing CCs in Arizona are expanding their solar
installation programs and CCs in North Dakota focus on wind turbine
construction and maintenance, it strikes me that in much of the
country (I could be wrong on this) there may be a great deal of
uncertainty about where the jobs of the future will come from.

If that is the case, I'd be real curious as to how decisions are made
both within departments and across colleges as to which programs to
expand and promote to students and which to reduce and/or cut.

Any thoughts on this? Are there clear local occupational forecasts?
Is there a clear process as to how those decisions are made and
processed? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

It's a great question; I wish more people would ask it. (Arne Duncan, I'm thinking of yoooouuuu...)

I'll admit to considerable uneasiness anytime I hear arguments like “X is the wave of the future. We need a program to prepare students for all those jobs!” Partially that's because I entered grad school in the early 1990's, prepared to capitalize on the Great Wave of Retirements; we all know how that wave turned out. Partially it's because I worked at Proprietary U during and after the dot-com boom, so I saw an entire industry go from “desperate for talent” to “desperate to survive” almost overnight. Partially it's because I'm seeing our Nursing grads suddenly struggle to find work, after many years during which new grads could write their own tickets. And partially it's because so many of the giant corporations of my youth are unrecognizable now, if they still exist at all. (Government Motors? Really?)

If I knew what the hot industry would be five years from now, I'd buy stock in it. I don't, and neither does anybody else. I read somewhere that at Clinton's economic summit in 1992, nobody used the word “internet.” (You'd think Al Gore would have!) Back then, Kodak thought its major competition was Polaroid. Remember Polaroid? Hell, remember Kodak?

At the root of my unease, I think, is the constant conflation of 'job training' with 'economic development.' They are not the same thing. In fact, they can actually be in conflict with each other.

'Job training' is very short-term and specific. It's teaching someone how to do basic tasks for a particular job, often with a particular employer. It usually leads to relatively entry-level work in industries that require more education to move up. The idea is to give people on the economic margins a quick path to a paycheck. It fits people for slots that already exist.

And that's where it hits its limits. It works only to the extent that it fits the jobs that actually exist. If the jobs aren't out there, the training doesn't amount to much.

Economic development doesn't result from filling pre-existing slots. It results from creating new ones.

Creating new ones requires people with initiative, some business know-how, drive, creativity, and great communication skills. It also requires time, access to capital, and some kind of safety net for failure. Although any given business can succeed abruptly, the payoff from an educated population accrues slowly and in the aggregate. It doesn't appear in statistics done six months after graduation.

Today I heard rumors of a forthcoming announcement from the Obama administration for more money for job training programs at community colleges. If anyone up there is listening, please please please keep in mind that the old training model doesn't fit large chunks of the new economy. In reality, the boundary between 'training' and 'transfer' is blurring, since more jobs require more education than they used to. And for long-term growth, as opposed to short-term patching, training isn't close to the answer.

Back at Proprietary U, we graduated gazillions of students into an industry that barely exists anymore. The only courses they took back then that are still relevant, oddly enough, are the general education classes. Industries come and go, but the basics – the ability to synthesize information, to connect the dots, to communicate – endure. Those are job skills. Let's not funnel the resources away from the source of actual long-term growth, in hopes of training more call center reps. Those can, and will, be outsourced.

My proposal for long-term prosperity: combine an educated population with national health insurance (since going without health insurance is a colossal barrier to starting a new business) and a focus on providing the kinds of public goods that lead to all manner of positive externalities – basic research, mass transit, that sort of thing. If that sounds a bit Scandinavian, well, Norway and Sweden aren't doing too badly these days. Iceland followed our model instead, and effectively collapsed. In places with plenty of smart people running around, where the cost of failure isn't so awful, it's not shocking that Nokias and Ericssons pop up. Here, we get Wal-Mart. We can train people to work at Wal-Mart, and there may be times when that's the least-bad short-term option. But it's not the same thing.

Now, to answer the actual question.

On the ground, we pick programs based largely on either needs expressed by local employers, or the availability of grants. Neither is perfect, but they're what we have.

Thanks for the question! I hope the Obama administration uses its initiative wisely.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Can't say I agree with your Scandinavian analogy, DD. I'm not an economics expert by any means, but what happened in Iceland doesn't seem to map very well to our experience...from what I've been able to tell, they shifted a lot of their economy from resource extraction (especially fishing) straight into currency speculation. This tends not to work well during a market disruption. I also tend to feel that Scandinavian countries are so unlike the US in temperament, history, demographics and political structure that it's hard to draw lessons between them. Both systems work, pretty much, but on very different terms. (I once had an extended debate with a Swedish online friend where I attempted to explain why American political philosophy tended to cause resistance to international bodies like the UN. It became clear that we were working from mutually incompatible worldviews.)

That said:

Economic development doesn't result from filling pre-existing slots. It results from creating new ones.

Creating new ones requires people with initiative, some business know-how, drive, creativity, and great communication skills. It also requires time, access to capital, and some kind of safety net for failure.

Absolutely true. However, IMO community colleges should not be concentrating on developing people like this. The skillset you describe is quite rare, probably <5% of the population, and the folks with this much drive are generally going to figure out a way to succeed no matter what. The best way to encourage them is to avoid weighing them down with too much overhead while they're trying to get things started. It's probably worth offering coursework that speaks to things they specifically need to know, or possibly offer "intellectual incubator" space via faculty-entrepreneur partnerships, but otherwise, you can't help them.

The safety net is especially important, which is why I think a sort of time-limited healthcare program would be really smart. (Start a business that employs at least two other people, and you and your employees qualify for subsidized coverage for three years. Safeguards would have to be put in, of course, but I can see ways it would work.) But that's a broader government function, not a cc thing.

Probably the best thing we can do for the other 95% of the population would be a formal acknowledgement that you can't train a 20-year-old to be employable when he's 60. Sure, communication skills are all well and good, but when an employer is looking at a resume, they're way down the list. They can help you get a promotion, and make you better at your job, but they are not going to get you over the hump come hiring time. And with the labor market being as fluid as it is, everyone's going to be job hunting at some point.

I'm imagining some sort of system, much like pre-tax healthcare savings plans, where adults can stash money for re-training. If you're thrown out of work, you can use the stash to supplement unemployment insurance and take some training to re-align yourself with the job market as it exists right then. CC's could act as purveyors of such education, of course, and could also facilitate internships and other mentoring.
"our Nursing grads suddenly struggle to find work"

Are they really? What's changed?
Here I am, a refugee from a liberal arts department (economics) surviving in a business school.

And I have to say, I continue to be struck by the incredible importance of the habits of mind that one develops in the liberal arts:

The ability to read carefully and critically.

The ability to write carefully and critically. (No program of study creates exciting writers; they create themselves.)

The ability to reason.

The ability to evaluate sources of evidence and to use good (valid, reliable) evidence.

The ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

You should note that none of that includes any discipline-specific knowledge or theoretical basis. Even those of us who have spent our entire lives in academia and in a single, relatively stable discipline have seen huge changes in the discipline-specific knowledge and in the underlying theory used in the discipline.

So I'd speak even more forcefully in favor of building on a strong general education core, and building those competencies as well in individual disciplines. The specific skills people need will change, the firms and industries in which they work will change. As an old Johnny Rivers song (yes, really) said, "The only thing that's permanent is change."
@doc: I tend to agree, but I think those habits are usually picked up somewhat later in the academic career unless the undergrad education is unusually rigorous. I learned how to study as an undergrad; I only really learned how to reason, and do many of the other things on your list, in grad school. I notice that most of the undergrads I mentor don't have much experience in critical analysis of this type. (I am making a point of training my grad student in scientific reasoning.)

It is also possible to learn these things outside a college setting, but it always requires close attention and mental discipline. I recommend to you the book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I finished last week. The author's a poli-sci Ph.D, and he spends time discussing the importance of close reasoning and critical analysis in the skilled trades.

Out of curiosity, how do you feel that a liberal-arts education made you better at adapting to changing circumstances? It's not a trait that I think of as particularly associated with the academy.
Snark: how is Minnesota (Scandinavian immigrants) doing compared to Georgia (English debtor's prisons)? But you are 100% correct about the difference between how Norway handled its oil money compared to Great Britain, and Iceland looks like Las Vegas or California.

The answer to your rhetorical question about the great wave of retirements is that it resulted in the job you have now! Retirement out of universities is more of a trickle; a classic example is a recent retiree who got his physics PhD in 1965. Some stay for 50 years. It's easy to keep going in an R1 with a 1/1 load and zero research effort, less so at a CC. Faculty at a CC are far more likely to retire as soon as they can do so with full benefits, sometimes stretching it a few years just to be eligible for Medicare (your point about health care applies here as well).

Otherwise, I agree 100% with your comments about training (in the usual sense of the word) and the silliness of the Obama plan. Our CC has a variety of short-term programs specific to local business, and some come and go quickly because they do not even require national accreditation. However, the bulk of our "job training" is for pre-business and pre-criminal justice transfers.

Now I teach physics to future engineers, and they could really use some funding to cover the 15 hours or so they need to take beyond the AA to reach what an engineering school considers "junior" standing. No-strings money for that would keep them out of the workforce for a few years and make them ready for jobs about three years from today.

PS - I don't know if our nursing grads have a problem, but I could guess that the cause would be [a] cut backs at public hospitals because of state and local budget cuts along with [b] nurses coming back into the workforce because a spouse got laid off.
I don't know if our nursing grads have a problem, but I could guess that the cause would be [a] cut backs at public hospitals because of state and local budget cuts along with [b] nurses coming back into the workforce because a spouse got laid off.

Lots of hospitals are holding their breath now, not hiring new people. And many people who originally were planning on retiring are holding off, waiting for their 401k/403bs to recover. That said, if you are a licensed nurse, it is still pretty easy to find a job. You have to be willing to take the jobs that are less popular (swing or midnight shift) or go 60 miles away from the big nursing programs in the area.

This year is tough. Next year will be tougher for the hospitals as more uninsured people show up an can't pay. Ironically, the poor and illegal folks have insurance that covers their costs. The uninsured (all 5 million of them in California - and rising) are a major drag on the system and ultimatly will be what pushes up costs for those of us with insurance (as hospitals / healthcare providers try to recover their losses from folks that can actually pay). If the Obama plan does nothing more than cover those without insurance, it will be a massive improvement on the current situation.
The nursing boom/bust is part and parcel of an overall craziness in the health sector; there's a great article on how vastly different different health organizations are in different parts of the country.
Occupational forecasting seems a great example of a self-negating theory. Any field with a buzz or hot projections will attract too many students and career aspirants, generating a glut a few years down the line. A CC would probably serve successive generations of students better by making deliberate efforts to disregard occupational forecasting. (But this is not the best strategy for maximising student numbers.)
Keep in mind that increasing student enrollment, while not necessarily a bad thing, is not explicitly a goal of an institution which loses money on a per-student basis.
Dictyranger asked me about some things: "Out of curiosity, how do you feel that a liberal-arts education made you better at adapting to changing circumstances?"

Perhaps it was the place (a small, very good liberal arts college with a very, very good faculty) or the time (late 1960s). We were pushed (or at least I was) to read, write, and reason critically. My econ faculty expected it, and so did the philosophers and historians from whom I took courses. And the guy I took a course in poetry from. And my debate coach. (One could avoid all these things, and I know some people who did, quite nicely, even at my school...booze and drugs and golf helped).

And the times, as Bob Dylan put it fairly ungrammatically, they were a-changin'. It was hard to be aware and intellectually curious in the late 1960s without realizing that the world was going to be very different. And, again, perhaps adventitiously, I had a number of professors who used the turmoil of the time to make us think about change. (Let me be clear that not every faculty member did this and not every student took advantage of the opportunity. But it was there, in big purple letters that one had to work to ignore.) I took away from that four years the lesson that I needed to be prepared to live with change...not necessarily adjust to it, but live with it. (I also took away the lesson that one shoul question--and distrust--authority, a lesson I still find quite relevant.)
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