Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Middle Skills"

If you know what “middle skills” are, you’re nearly as nerdy as I am.  They’re the hot new thing in discussions of both economic development and community colleges.

Broadly speaking, “middle skills” refer to workers who have some formal post-high school education, but who don’t have a four-year degree.  That could mean a two-year degree and/or some sort of certificate.  Jobs that require specific sets of “middle skills” include all manner of technicians, alllied health positions, certain kinds of office work, and even -- in some jurisdictions -- law enforcement.  

This New York Times story about why the iphone isn’t built in America (even though it was designed here) takes the popular position that the deal-breaker for Apple was a lack of workers among the ranks of the middle-skilled.  If only we had a ready supply of technicians, it suggests, Apple might have stuck around.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, “middle skill” positions have been largely ignored in the popular and political discussions of the economy, and that’s a mistake.  It’s great fun to highlight the story of the up-from-poverty kid who became a cardiologist and established a charity to help others do the same, but the far more common story is of the up-from-poverty kid who got an associate’s degree in criminal justice and became a cop.  And there’s nothing wrong with that; we need police (and nurses, and technicians...), and a solid working-class life beats the crap out of poverty.  It’s an attainable goal, and one that community colleges in particular have helped millions fulfill.  It’s reality, it’s welcome, it’s underappreciated, and it’s a real contribution to the public good.

But no, it’s not the entire story.

The Apple story refers to middle skills, but it’s really about the ability to make major changes quickly.  In China, the entire logistics chain is already there, as are tremendous numbers of qualified employees.  Perhaps more importantly, those workers have no meaningful workplace rights.  They’re at the mercy of the employer at a level that Americans would find inconceivable.   The wages are lower, but the real issue is the ability of the employer to stop on a dime and change direction as the market dictates.  That’s just not culturally possible here, at least for now.  

For a counterexample, take Kodak.  It was so tied up in the life of its home city that it couldn’t bring itself to make difficult changes.  Last week it finally filed for bankruptcy.

What killed Kodak wasn’t a lack of middle-skilled workers.  It had plenty of those.  What it didn’t have was the ruthlessness to say ‘no’ to internal constituencies as the market shifted from under its feet.  

I’m happy to see community colleges get some recognition for the valuable work they do in helping prepare some vital parts of the workforce, and in providing a realistic and non-exploitative way for students from economically challenged backgrounds to get a foothold in the middle class.  And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’d like to see more support for that role, especially as older options for entry into the middle class -- unionized factory work, for example -- fade away.  Besides, some of these jobs need to be done here -- law enforcement, say -- and really can’t be sent to China.  

But at the end of the day, as important as education is, it’s only part of the picture.  Asking it to do more than it ever could is just setting it up for failure.  I don’t want to see it get punished for not being able to do more than it ever should have been asked to do.  Kodak didn’t fail because it lacked an educated workforce.  For that matter, the economy didn’t fail because it lacked an educated workforce.  The issues, and failings, were far more complex than that.  By all means, let’s give the developers of middle skills the respect they (we) deserve, but let’s not mistake one good idea for the solution to the economy.  It just isn’t.