Sunday, June 30, 2013

Of Temps and Trainees

First jobs have changed.  

I’m not referring to summer jobs for teenagers, which are largely what they’ve always been.  I’m referring here to first “real” jobs -- full-time, salaried, open-ended positions that might lead somewhere.

Back in the late 90’s, during the Clinton boom, I used to hear variations on “you educate them., and we’ll train them.”  That was even true working at DeVry, which prided itself on producing “instant on” workers.  When the economy was humming along and labor shortages in certain fields were the order of the day, it wasn’t weird for companies to look for generally smart people and train them in the specifics of what they did.  Given the speed with which the tech sector evolved, that method made sense; by the time you finished a four year degree, much of what you had learned in the first two years was already obsolete anyway.  Beyond some basics, employers wanted to know that you were trainable, and that you had enough workplace sense that they could surround you with adults and not worry about it.

My brother played the situation similarly.  He was a history and religion double major, but he found himself a company that was willing to train smart people to work as technical writers.  He has been able to fashion a successful career from there.  Once the first foot was in the door, he was fine.

In the recent discussion of colleges and workforces, though, I’ve seen a shift.  Employers in general are less willing to train -- they’re much more vocal about wanting the “instant on” employee.  The speed of technical change hasn’t slowed -- if anything, it has accelerated -- but the old “you educate them, we’ll train them” model isn’t as popular as it was.

Part of that, I suspect, is the switch from a labor shortage to a labor surplus.  Those of us in academia know this shift well, since we experienced it first.  When employers are desperate for people, they’ll overlook a few gaps in preparation and fill them in later.  But when you have your choice of great people, it’s easy to sacrifice training budgets and just hire people who have already done the job elsewhere.  Why put up with rookie mistakes when there are experienced people eager to step in?

In a sense, the temp is the new trainee.  That’s where the experience comes from now.  In academia, that means adjuncting; in the corporate world, it means internships or project-based assignments or contract work or straight-up “temping.”  Given plenty of candidates for full-time positions, it’s rational for an employer to prefer candidates with some demonstrated experience over candidates with none.  But candidates are expected to get that experience through an incredibly low-paid sort of pickup work that was never designed to be educative.  

The old apprenticeship or trainee model wasn’t terribly well-paid either, but it was specifically designed to both produce better workers and weed out the hopeless.  And when times were better, it actually led somewhere.  

The graduate student unionization movement that took hold in the 90’s was an early response to the realization that a generation of grad students was getting the worst of both worlds.  Grad school was still designed on the old apprenticeship model -- that’s how they justified the poverty and peonage -- but upon graduation, those same students had to serve time in the new temp-based form of training.  And even after all that, which could easily add up to a decade or more, there was no guarantee of a real job at the end.  The unionization drive was based on a recognition that it’s one thing to defer gratification and another to forego it altogether; if grad student peonage is merely low-paid work, rather than sufficient training, then the workers should be allowed to protect their rights.  Which, in fact, they should.  It didn’t solve the larger problem, but it was better than nothing.

Now that a variation on the academic model has made its way throughout the economy, colleges are getting blamed for not preparing students for jobs.  Yes, there’s always room for improvement, but at a basic level this is a misunderstanding.  The jobs have changed.  All of us -- higher ed, the broader public, political leadership -- are still coming to terms with that.  Community colleges are part of a solution, but the issue is far, far larger.