Trump, Trade and Community Colleges
Donald Trump has moved international trade policy to the top of the list of major issues in the 2016 presidential election. Trump is attracting Republican voters by mingling fears over immigration and trade policy to paint “foreign threats” as the drivers of job loss and wage stagnation for middle class and blue collar families. And perhaps for the first time, Bernie Sanders is showing that the internal Democratic split on this issue goes beyond policy wonk arguments and can move voters in Democratic primaries.
The relationship between trade policy and employment is shaped by a complex mix of factors – many of which I won’t discuss in this post. Whatever one thinks about the substance (or lack thereof) in the political debate over these factors, the importance of trade policy in the 2016 presidential campaign is revealing a profound lack of confidence in the resilience of the American economy and our workforce development strategies.
America’s confidence is waning. But a trade wall won’t bring it back. We can’t completely isolate the American economy from global competition; and the job losses that come from other forces aren’t going away. Confidence can only be restored if the US creates a system that helps workers successfully navigate a changing economy and labor market.
That’s where community colleges, as well as other colleges and universities serving local populations, come into play. In theory, these higher education institutions should work in partnership with regional workforce development boards and state agencies to provide short term credit and non-credit programs to help workers prepare for changes in the job market. This role should not be limited to serving just recently displaced workers; but should meet the needs of broader populations who will face job and earnings challenges from many sources throughout the forty years or longer of a career.
Unfortunately, an integrated education and training pipeline just doesn’t exist in most places. There are lots of small success stories but very few examples of a system robust enough to maintain public confidence. The anxiety evidenced in the presidential campaign should prevent education and workforce leaders from resting on the laurels of small scale success.
After many years of participation in regional and state discussion, planning and activity meant to meet this challenge, I’ve come to the conclusion that we lack the infrastructure to make it work. Too many organizations pursue narrow internally defined priorities. Employers have a hard time providing actionable insights to educators and trainers. The eligibility standards in most federally funded programs restrict the reach of services and leave many Americans on the outside looking in.
The key elements of a new approach are place, independence, relevance and ongoing measurement and refinement.
Place: The behavior of people and employers define the place that matters, not the political jurisdictions of states, counties, cities, workforce boards, college catchment areas or whatever else you have. Most people in a metro region know this and can readily define the geography of their labor market unless they happen to be an insider connected to the turf of an existing organization. The regional labor market must be served. Federal, state or local policies that get in the way of success must yield to the needs defined by commuting and hiring patterns.
Independence: Colleges and workforce boards cannot be left to their own devices to decide what a region needs. Their own self-interest gets in the way. An independent broker that answers to regional leaders is needed. The broker should play a role in directing funding, but it should never get into the service delivery business itself.
Relevance: This is all about employment and earnings power of the people of the region. Employers have a lot to contribute to defining relevance, as do professionals in educational and workforce agencies. But no one sector owns the issue or the knowledge base needed to define relevance. This is a complicated issue and even “official spokespeople” for major employers can send mixed or wrong signals to service providers.
Measurement and refinement: Relevance and success must be constantly monitored. Employer satisfaction is important but the ultimate test is the employment and earnings power of the people in a region. The data tools to measure progress exist and are getting better all the time. The insights gleaned from this analysis must be used to continually adapt regional responses and not left for annual progress reports.
No five year strategic plan is going to fix this. It’s what I call “forever work.” The pace of economic and career change is not letting up. Colleges and workforce agencies must always remember that if they seek to protect their organization from change they are ignoring the reality that those they serve are subject to constant change. Regional leaders need to take the point and refuse to let any part of the system get too comfortable if we are going to restore public confidence in a resilient American economy.
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Michael Meotti is the Principal of Ed Policy Group and formerly served as CT Commissioner of Higher Education
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