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.