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The Great Training Wreck: Job Skills Deficits and Corporate-Backed Tech Schools

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Roger BybeeWorker training has emerged as a major flashpoint between labor and corporate leaders, igniting conflicts over low corporate tax rates, the offshoring of jobs and the low-skilled nature of most future job growth in America.

First, corporate leaders have been insisting that a significant part of the unemployment problem is due not to the massive offshoring of jobs or lack of effective consumer demand caused by low pay, but under-skilled U.S. workers. The CEOs sometimes blame workers themselves: PIMCO investment fund founder Bill Gross has stated: “Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s market place.”

Second, corporate leaders—although intransigent about paying higher taxes (or, quite often, any taxes) to help provide funding for education and training—seek to convert technical education into short-term retraining that benefits corporations while workers fail to learn portable skills.

This latter issue has emerged in a new law passed just before the end of the recent legislative session in Madison, when Wisconsin Republicans engineered a last-minute takeover of technical education at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

The long-term implications of the MATC takeover for working people will mean a shift from seeking skills that increase long-term opportunities to quick re-training to suit corporate needs, said Michael Rosen, president of American Federation of Teachers Local 212 at MATC and a member of Wisconsin’s Technical College Board.

“This restructuring will move MATC away from upgrading skills into training programs that will flood labor markets,” Rosen says. “It doesn’t bode well for comprehensive technical training. Our mission has been to provide industry with skills they want from their workers, but also to provide workers with skills that are portable and will build their careers.”

However, the new restructuring will take power away from a board appointed by area School Board presidents to a new entity selected by four county executives, giving power to two leaders from wealthy, conservative counties far out of proportion to the amount of funding and number of students they provide for MATC. Ozaukee and Washington counties account for only 6 percent of students, but 18 percent of funding. Milwaukee County supplies 82 percent of the funding, but accounts for nearly all MATC students.

“Two of the county executives are hardcore Republicans who don’t care about urban education at all,” Rosen asserted.

LITTLE FUNDING, BUT BIG VOICE FOR CORPORATE PRIORITIES

But despite the low funding that they provide, the new appointees will likely champion the view that technical education should be trimmed to fit immediate corporate priorities.

Rosen notes that even as corporate leaders complain about the shortage of skilled workers, CEOs have insisted on lower taxes that drain the funding base for technical education at both the high-school level-—where it is the most expensive component of education—and at two-year technical colleges.

Routinely using the threat of relocating jobs and capital to extort tax reductions that drain educational funding, corporate leaders have nonetheless escalated their complaints about the technical education provided in high schools and technical colleges.

“The very people complaining about the lack of tech ed have been fighting against increases in their own taxes, corporate and personal,” fumed Rosen. In Wisconsin, more than 60 percent of the corporations netting $100 million or more in revenues wind up paying no corporate income taxes, according to the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future.

But corporate leaders in Wisconsin, led by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and helped by Republican legislators, have nonetheless blamed MATC to justify the hostile takeover.

Corporate leaders, led by Tim Sullivan, the former CEO of  Bucyrus-Erie and chair of Gov. Scott Walker’s Workforce Investment Council, has been sounding the alarm for producing more skilled labor. This revitalized technical education system would be based on the reallocation of federal dollars, not new funding from corporations, which are a primary beneficiary of a skilled workforce.

Further, corporations in Wisconsin—despite occasional shortages in skilled labor—are failing to generate jobs that require advanced skills and command family-sustaining wages. As Rosen, an economist, recently pointed out in a briefing paper:

Of the 10 fastest growing occupations in Wisconsin, 9 cannot be considered skilled labor. These include, in order of total openings: cashiers, waiters and waitresses, customer service reps, food preparers including fast food service workers, laborers, office clerks and bartenders. Only nurses, ranked number 6, can be considered a skilled labor occupation.

As America’s job crisis continues, expect future battles over the role of education to be fought across the nation. CEOs will insist that technical schools should be dedicated to enlarging the pool of narrowly-skilled workers to meet their needs (and boost their profits).

How forcefully educators and students demand a broader education that empowers citizens and provides portable skills remains to be seen.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on April 4, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and progressive publicity consultant whose work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, Yes!, The Progressive, Multinational Monitor, The American Prospect and Foreign Policy in Focus. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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