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Issue 34

Getting In Bed With The Bad Guys
By Jackie Regales

In November of 2004, Dell Inc. decided to build a new computer manufacturing facility in North Carolina, a project that promised to bring at least 1,500 new jobs to the Piedmont Triad region and have a $24.5 billion impact on the state’s economy over a 20-year period. The decision was the result of an extraordinary effort by North Carolina to lure the facility to the state, a courtship that included a $242 million incentive package of land, property tax relief, and inclusion in the state’s New and Expanding Industry Training Program (NEIT). As the oldest customized job training program in the country, NEIT offers free training to companies newly arrived in North Carolina or those that are expanding.

While clearly a sweet deal for Dell, the state government trumpeted the deal nationally as an example of how to keep lucrative manufacturing stateside. The Republican administration touted the training of laid-off workers as the answer to unemployment, and the Dell-Piedmont agreement seemingly promises it.

In fact, the Dell-Piedmont deal is a model of what President Bush hopes community colleges and coporate partners will accomplish under his Community-Based Job Training Program (CBJTP), a $250 million grants program. CBJTP encourages such partnerships to provide specialized vocational training, designed according to corporate needs. In fact, when selling the program from coast to coast during the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush promoted this “free-market system of education,” with community colleges at the vanguard, as one that trains people for “jobs that actually exist.” Like other Bush educational initiatives, the CBJTP also includes public accountability and pits colleges against each other by competing for funds.

As is usual with political rhetoric, Bush’s message is more than it seems. Free-market education implies that students, especially in community colleges, are more interested in vocational training instead of studying the humanities or less “practical” fields of study. Essentially, if unable to afford a four-year school, the Bush administration believes that students only merit vocational training.

What’s wrong with job training? On the face of it, nothing at all. Just ask Polly Katauskas, a former Navy-enlisted weather forecaster who retired after 22 years of service and is now enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College, in Arnold, Maryland, where I am an instructor. As an enlisted forecaster, Polly received the kind of training that CBJTP hopes for, explaining, “My particular school was six months of extremely intensive training in atmospheric physics, satellite interpretation, basic oceanography, forecasting methods, and on and on.  If I didn’t need to know it to do my job as a forecaster I didn’t learn it.  This method of instruction saves the taxpayer (you and me) a boatload of money and has produced good forecasters.”

However, Polly is insistent on describing herself as an enlisted forecaster, because this specific training, while preparing her for her job, never resulted in a degree in meteorology or oceanography, as her officer counterparts held. She believes that vocational job training is both practical and effective but is an entirely different arena from her current education as a college student.

“I’m not here for job training,” she says, “I hope to never need that again. Getting a degree is a personal goal for me, and I worry that an emphasis on job training would overshadow the value of learning.”

Community colleges have always struggled to maintain a balance between their three primary functions: helping under-prepared students become more prepared for higher education, offering affordable university-level courses, and providing vocational training. These origins date back to the early 20th century, when the first community colleges were established as two-year liberal arts colleges. They shifted in 1948, when the Truman Commission declared that post-World-War II America, particularly veterans financing their studies with the GI Bill, would benefit from increased vocational training at community colleges. The aggregation, termed the comprehensive college model, has long been a delicate juggling act for many schools.

Jose Ortiz, Vice President of Instruction at Laney College in Oakland, California believes that community colleges are already overtaxed and under-funded, and that “target” funding is often ineffective because colleges lack the resources to properly manage the new, narrowly designed programs. “In the state of California, for example, community colleges receive a little over $4,000 per student, “ Ortiz notes, “while the University of California receives over $16,000 per student and the California State college system receives a little over $10,000 per student.” Much of the money allocated in the Community-Based Job Training Grants programs will disappear into developing the bureaucracy needed to handle an entirely new program in addition to the heavy load community colleges already carry.

The California community college system handles more students than either of the other branches of higher education in the state yet receives less money. In Florida, one million students enroll in the state’s 28 community colleges every year. In the year 2000, 42% of all undergraduates nationwide were enrolled at public two-year institutions, according to the Department of Education, forecasting that 2005 enrollment will exceed 6 million. Including branch campuses, there are over a thousand community colleges in the United States, and yet are consistently ignored in discussions of higher education and funding. Disturbingly, the students at these colleges would most benefit from higher education and are unable to afford pursuing at more expensive or demanding venues.

Of the 8,000 students at South Seattle Community College in Washington, the average student age is 30, and 48% are first generation college students. Thirty-three percent are non-native English speakers, 9% are single mothers, and 15% are immigrants to the United States. The student body is 33% Caucasian, 24% Asian or Pacific Islander, 10% Hispanic, and 13% African-American.

As an instructor, I am continually amazed at what my students endure in order to obtain their education. I have had students who are nurse’s aids and attend my evening course from 6-9:30 p.m., work a twelve-hour shift beginning at 10 p.m., then wake up and take another class in the afternoon, semester after semester. Many of my students are mothers attending college for the first time only after their oldest child begins to attend college, often at exclusive institutions very dissimilar to mine. The occupations of my students have included police officers, dispatchers, computer programmers, nannies, receptionists, retail workers, classroom aides, social work aides, and full-time mothers, but rarely do I have student who is not carrying several classes in addition to a full-time job.

While a great number of my students are working towards degrees that will aid them in their current careers, many hope to transfer to four-year institutions. I hear ambitions ranging from legal work to mechanical engineering to secondary education, from students of all ages and skill levels. I hear these students talking about occupations, but just as often I hear that a college degree is a personal goal, or that they will be the first in their family to receive a “real degree.” I hear parents, male and female, saying that they want to model lifelong learning for their children. And, I hear students mention anthropology, foreign languages, and astronomy as just a few of the courses they want to take when they transfer to larger institutions.

An anonymous instructor at a Western community college raises concerns about the benefits of these training grants to the kinds of students she and I teach every semester. She fears that programs like these benefit the employer, but “can easily be used by employers to just get around having to pay to train their own existing or potential employees, bringing their profit margin higher at the public’s expense.”  After all, neither North Carolina’s program nor the federal programs ensure that trained students will be guaranteed jobs, or that these jobs will last. Neither program assists workers in paying for the training. The instructor goes on to add, “Tying the grant to specific employers is problematic, as well. This opens the door (wider) for businesses to shape curriculum to meet their specific short-term needs rather than the long-term needs of a community, which is what should shape the curriculum.” In an era when manufacturing moves in and out of states, and indeed, the country, at a company’s whim, a degree may offer workers more job opportunities than a training targeted solely for the needs of a corporate employer.

President Bush spoke at my college in last year’s campaign and mentioned the job training programs. I took this opportunity to discuss the program with my classes, to see how they felt about the proposed changes to their educations. One of my students, an avowed and vocal conservative, spoke up immediately. “Well, it’s all about outsourcing, isn’t it?” he said. “Aren’t we losing all these jobs to outsourcing? Shouldn’t we be training people better so that Americans can be more competitive and keep those jobs here in the U.S?” It was an argument Bush himself has made in favor of the training programs, but as I told my student, I find that to be a faulty argument. I don’t believe outsourcing is caused by a lack of skilled American workers, and I don’t believe job training will slow the tide, as a closer look at struggling communities across the country indicates.

Owens Community College, in Toledo, Ohio, is one of the fastest-growing community colleges in the nation, a success story often cited by Bush when speaking of the future of community colleges. Owens, founded 40 years ago as a technical college, today is a comprehensive community college serving over 44,000 students. Some of its most distinctive and well-known programs include the Skilled Trades Technologies and Open Exit programs, designed to be “directly targeted to the requirements of a modern manufacturing environment,” built with input from community business leaders, with customized courses often offered on-site at participating corporations. Owens works with over 400 companies in industry annually and has served over 18,000 people in their Workforce Development programs.

 If job training were the silver bullet, than Ohio’s economy should be booming, particularly in the northwest area where Owens is thriving. Yet, it is not. Federal economists are mystified by the abundance of woes. Analysts point to state tax policies, business development practices, quality of life questions, and the higher cost of benefits-per-employee in the eastern Midwest region, but no one seems to think the workers are unskilled. Area economists talk of the Southern United States being much less expensive for employers because their benefits and pay are cheaper, and attribute the differential to the prevalence of unions in the Midwestern states. Ohio is still waiting for the solution to a lagging economy, but job training is not the savior.

While job training is difficult to turn down, it should not supplant the other vital functions that community colleges offer student bodies. More importantly, we should not be engaged in telling students who cannot afford higher education that their only other option is to train for jobs that may or may not last, that they may or may not enjoy or feel an aptitude for. We should ask ourselves: should our higher educational institutions function in response to the free market? And, if students that would benefit most from university education should be the experimental guinea pigs impacted by such free market forces?

Jackie Regales teaches courses on activism, popular culture, and fine arts, and writes, hangs out with her kids, and loves her partner in Baltimore.

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