Bill Clinton in his presidency discussed his role in terms of assisting americans transition from doing respected blue-collar manufacturing labor, to doing service-oriented jobs. For a democrat with duties to labor, this was a particularly tough sell. Folks with generational ties to high-wage union jobs were amazed that the political elite would permit the transition of jobs to Mexico, through NAFTA, and to Asia via trade policy.
The Obama administration is in a similar position, with its heavy debt to unions. Shovel ready projects are heavily criticized in their slowness to implementation, and the general ineffectiveness of heavy stimulus. During the last three years of research, and experimentation on our project, I have witnessed the meltdown of the traditional labor economy in the hands of the current elite, and publicly speculated on the changes this ongoing crisis would make on how we train for jobs in America. It is a strange thing to ask for someone’s vote one year, then tell them there is no such thing as a ‘shovel-ready’ job two years later.
Clinton had his fingers on the pulse of an awesome trend – the transition of skilled labor to different labor markets, and the burgeoning wealth creation in the USA. On one hand, a new class of entrepreneurs were creating record employment with the opening of startups, and the use of capital to create jobs. Typically, jobs in internet startups, finance and emerging markets would absorb college graduates only. This increase in the employability of educated workers credited the meritocracy of the country — train hard, become marketable. This serves our sense of entitlement in the way our grandparents would want it.
But the meteoric wealth gain due to globalism and the capitalism of the 1990s also led the president to depart his union base, and admit to them that there was little he could ethically do (in the new global capitalist context), to save their jobs. The federal government was second-fiddle to the powers of venture capital in creating rapid-fire new positions. The best the government could do was to increase its commitment to public post-secondary training and college-level curricula. Clinton believed that the new labor market equillibrium could be achieved by permitting jobs to depart the country, and move leftover US workers into post-employment training, in addition to bolstering public education for adults, everywhere.
Now, community colleges are burgeoning. New research (which I have twittered) points to an emerging imperative to be highly trained. College entrance continues to grow each year, engulfing new classes of individuals who traditionally would not enter college. It is true that proprietary colleges (university of phoenix, devry and its cousins) are engulfed in controversy, largely beyond public view. But the points of controversy affecting the periphery colleges will pass in time. They will receive new layers of regulation, and the enrollment of individuals into labor-preparation programs will go on, if not for economic reasons for shareholders in these systems, then for their political efficacy (university of phoenix is the largest single educational system in the US, 50% larger than its next public competitor). As an adjunct professor at my local community college, I can attest that these proprietary systems are much better run than their public counterparts by a long shot, and offer excellent value, in the hands of motivated, mature, and disciplined students. By increasing the regulation on proprietary colleges will cause them to operate more legally, thus increasing the public’s trust in them, and they will attract more federal money, long-term.
If it is by merit that the US workforce will survive, then so be it. If generations of manual labor are to be passed on to expanding immigrant groups via loose border policies (which will persist in California under Meg Whitman or Jerry Brown), then we will need to recommend to our children not to become mere carpenters, but to ascend to contractor status.
Forces set in motion well before our tenure will continue. Globalism will flourish, and productive non-US cultures will flourish. Belarus, Vietnam, Argentina, among others, will become centers of excellence in computer programming and other areas. This will mean that the process of becoming a global leader in any given subject will be the new educational imperative, not the mere acquisition of skills, and the membership in the middle class. Becoming an adult will be defined by elevating oneself through the dramatically expanded array of career development options (CC, proprietary school, newer / cheaper online schools).
Our company remains disciplined to serving the needs of the transitioning labor economy, much in the way Clinton intended. We believe that each individual in our system needs access to the breadth of knowledge about how their specific skills integrate into the larger economy, and how the marketplace for employment is creatively using their talent. If a person needs to retool, they need to know this, and act proactively, not retroactively upon displacement. If a student has trained in an area, they need, very much, to leverage knowledge on their employment sector, and transition into positions quickly / seamlessly upon graduation. Our current morass of unemployed young people will haunt us for decades, if they are unable to seque into valuable employment. If they can grasp the complex landscape of options, they will surf and survive the next ten years of economic tsunami.