Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Thoughts on Workforce Development

What does workforce development look like?

The question is becoming more important as the term is gaining political steam.  

Politicians like to offer workforce development as an answer to the recession.  The idea is that if the folks without jobs had the skills to get the jobs that are going unfilled, then everybody would win.  Which is true, as far as it goes.

But it’s dangerous to expect too much of the “train the unemployed” strategy.

Too narrow a focus on workforce development usually has the effect of neglecting the ‘transfer’ function of community colleges.  Yes, community colleges can provide short-term training, but they can also provide the first two years of a four-year degree.  For students who are concerned about their debt loads, this can be a very attractive option.  The second word in “community college” is “college,” which is easy to forget when the political discourse reduces community colleges to training centers.

Some of us like to think that the transfer role is, in fact, a form of workforce development.  When a student from a shaky background finds her footing at the community college and eventually transfers for the four-year degree -- and sometimes more than that -- she becomes eligible for jobs she never could have attained without the degree.  That’s a potent, if slow, form of workforce development.  Conceptually, there’s no reason that transfer couldn’t be considered a part of the workforce development role, but in practical terms it’s usually considered separately.  That’s a mistake.

Still, even if everyone agreed on a broad definition, we’d still face some pretty serious issues.

-- The catastrophic increases in incarceration rates since the 1980s have done more than just starve public higher education of resources, though they have certainly done that.  They’ve also generated a tremendous number of low-skilled adults with criminal records.  Many of the jobs that pay a decent wage aren’t open to people with criminal records, even if they’ve completed a training program.  While I certainly support a more discerning approach to criminal justice, it’s hard to know what to offer the folks who’ve already been snagged in the current system.  Training them for jobs they can’t get doesn’t strike me as the answer, though.

-- Picking market winners isn’t easy.  This year’s hot field is next year’s cold one; knowing in advance what will be hot is usually educated guesswork.  I’m fairly sure that neurosurgeons and Ph.D. computer scientists will still do well, but that’s not terribly helpful at this level.  The most predictable lower-level workforce needs are actually the skills we expect students to pick up in their general education courses: effective communication, the ability to see the big picture, enough quantitative skill to know when an answer doesn’t sound right.  Those skills are evergreens, and like evergreens, they take time to grow.  

-- Sheer numbers.  Yes, there are fields in which a few local employers need some people quickly, and the work lends itself to relatively fast training.  But most of the time, the first or second group through exhausts the available openings.  

-- Adult Basic Education.  In many cases, the workforce development that’s actually needed isn’t so much training on this machine or that process, but instruction in English for Speakers of Other Languages or Adult Literacy.  This kind of instruction is usually separate from a college’s developmental track, since it isn’t necessarily geared towards getting the students into a degree program.  Unfortunately, ABE programs are often run on a shoestring, and are even more precarious economically than community colleges are.  If we really want to reach some of the hardest-to-place people, let’s start with the basics.

My free advice to any politicians reading this is simple: don’t let the fantasy of the simple, classic version of workforce development overshadow the big picture.  If you want to improve the prospects of the local workforce, start with adult basic education, add short-term training programs, and beef up the classic academic offerings at community colleges for transfer.  (While you’re at it, you might want to think about all that incarceration...)  If you want the full range of jobs, you need the full range of preparation.  Otherwise, you’ll just keep cycling people through training programs every few years, every time the economic winds shift.

And if you can come up with something practical for folks with criminal records, all the better.

The recession is because our banking system runs on fraud and also because the Class War has disrupted demand. So, workforce training, while of course a lovely idea, is not relevant to that process.
Community colleges can provide short-term training, but they can also provide the first two years of a four-year degree.
Try selling that to the DOL. They are looking to fund 6-12 week training courses that get limited english speakers into jobs that pay $20-$30 an hour. There's two problems with that. First, those kinds of jobs in my field are saturated with people right now. Second, they lead nowhere without a degree. AA, BS, whatever - your next move is a degree. But the work people do to get those jobs doesn't count towards a degree. So there's a total disconnect.

The issue with incarceration is also a big one in healthcare. Our patients are so fragile and you need them to feel safe in the hospital. But when my state started licensing phlebotomists in 2002 (which required a background check), they learned that many of the licencees had very colorful pasts because ROP programs for released prisioners frequently directed them towards phlebotomy as a quick and easy way to have a stable career that was well paid compared to the amount of time spent training. After licensure (and in the midst of the chaos which is our state budget) a lot of the ROP programs closed and were replaced by programs at propriatary schools which are about 10 times more expensive. Reformed heroin addicts make excellent phlebotomists but they have a tough time getting licensed now.

I really wish more workforce dev. courses counted as part of GE - I think spending a quarter sticking a needle in someone's arm in a hospital teaches lots about psychology and critical thinking. If I could change one thing it would be to either eliminate GE requirements or liberalize them so that people who went to school to get a job wouldn't have to wade through so much curriculum to get to the next step to get their degree. Time is the enemy for people out of work who are trying to reinvent themselves.
I strongly endorse your implicit call for ending the ruinous, pointless War on Drugs. We're already in the hold; let's stop digging.

Also, what Ivory said.
Finally something on which Mr. Dantes and I can agree. End the War On Americans Who Use Some Drugs.
"But most of the time, the first or second group through exhausts the available openings."

Exactly this happened to my mother in the late 80s; just when she finished her program (at 3/4 load because she was raising young children) the market for that profession dried up.

Luckily, she already had a BA, so "having the paper" wasn't an issue. She has said that being able to go to school was helpful in transitioning back to work after a decade at home, even though the job she ended up in had nothing to do with her training. As an aside, she just retired from that job after 20 years; her boss & coworkers were begging her to stay on just a bit longer.

Which is to say that your points resonate very deeply with me.
I don't know a single person, of any political persuasion, who supports the War on Drugs. Of course, I don't know any politicians.
I don't know a single person, of any political persuasion, who supports the War on Drugs.

I know a few. They drink, they smoke, and they fulminate about "Yo bama" — for all that they don't vote.
"And if you can come up with something practical for folks with criminal records, all the better."

CC's, over the past 10 or 20 years, have lost some of their potentially-BA-earning students to the directional state U's, who are now recruiting and enrolling weaker students. The recession has created some backwash, I'm sure, but HS counselors now buy the idea that those who start at a 4-year are most likely to finish (and that's a true idea, too). So CC's are supposed to graduate/transfer a higher proportion of their enrollees, at the same time as their enrollees are less and less prepared.
@Dantes: I've actually written to Obama on this subject, and the lies that he sent back were so blatant that I can only assume that this is a deep personal thing for him.

Maybe he thinks he should have been thrown in jail and made unemployable for using cocaine, I dunno.
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