Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Training for What?

Should a public college partner with a private company to train scabs?

Anya Kamenetz has a thought-provoking piece about the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s agreement to run welding programs for Caterpillar.  Caterpillar is expecting a strike, so it wants the local technical college to train its managers and non-unit staff to be able to do union jobs if its welders walk off the job. MATC is responding to employer need, offering training in an employable skill and thereby supporting the local economy.  Now the Steelworkers’ union is petitioning MATC to refrain from what it considers pre-emptive strikebusting.

It’s an ugly, sticky issue.  

There’s nothing objectionable about a technical college teaching welding.  It has done that for years, and I assume has done it well.  And there’s nothing unusual about a college contracting with specific private employers to run classes or training workshops for its employees.  Community colleges have done that for decades.  It’s a longstanding practice that frequently offers benefits to all involved: the employer gets good training at a reasonable cost; the taxpayers get a productive workforce and a strong economy; and the college fulfills its mission and makes money to support its nonprofit activities.  (Some of the faculty who object the loudest to workforce training on the grounds that it’s “impure” don’t seem to understand that it materially subsidizes their purity.)  Since noncredit workforce classes have to be economically self-supporting most of the time -- grants aside -- the benefit of working with a single employer is the guarantee of a critical mass of students at a given time and place.

In this case, the union is essentially asking the college to take a moral position that training these workers in this skill at this time is wrong.  

It reminded me of a discussion I had on my own campus recently.  It’s hardly news that Massachusetts is planning to legalize casinos, and that it’s soliciting proposals from various developers for locations.  Community colleges in relevant areas are preparing programs to train workers in the various skills for which casinos hire.  In conversation last week, a respected professor suggested to me that the college should take a moral position that casinos are bad for communities and simply refuse to participate.  

For that matter, I think there’s a serious argument to be made that graduate programs in many humanities and social science disciplines should either shrink or be shut down.  The employment prospects for their graduates at this point are so poor that the idea of spending taxpayer money to send the next wave of recruits into the wall doesn’t make sense.  But there, too, the people being asked to take a moral stand are the people whose livelihoods would be affected if they did.

It’s easy to condemn any or all of these activities, but thinking through the consequences of taking a self-consciously moral position gets complicated quickly.  Suppose MATC told Caterpillar to go away.  The governor of Wisconsin isn’t known for being particularly union-friendly; I can imagine severe political (and therefore budgetary) consequences for the college far beyond the loss of the contract.  Something like that is going on now in Michigan, where some public colleges are trying to sign long-term contracts with unions to beat the “right to work” deadline, and legislators are threatening budgetary retaliation.  

In the context of casinos, if the public sector training providers walked away, private sector training providers would happily pick up the slack.  The “pure” academic side would lose the cross-subsidy, and the political cost to the colleges would probably be substantial.  And the casinos would still be here.

As far as graduate education goes, I think the record is clear.  Graduate programs continue to admit because they need the t.a.’s and they like the prestige.  They’re caught in a variation on the tragedy of the commons; shutting down any one program would do great harm to the people in that program, but would barely make a dent in the larger problem.  The “you first” temptation is so strong that nobody goes first.  

The Milwaukee case struck me as an usually clear example of an issue that we face all the time.  Mixed motives are a fact of life, and political consequences can be very real.  

Wise and worldly readers, what would you do?  If you ran MATC, would you honor the union request, or would you run the program?