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The Dilemmas of Worker Retraining

The basic idea is simple: A big manufacturing company decides to move out of town, or out of the country, resulting in massive layoffs, so the local community college steps in to retrain former employees to help them get a good job in another field.

But this important task is hard to pull off, for a variety of reasons, as pointed out in a nice article in The Atlantic by Jeffrey Selingo. The piece profiles affected students and evaluates state and federal programs designed to produce highly trained workers for the modern economy. One of the more interesting profiles involves the Maytag company, based in Des Moines, Iowa, where the local community college took over physical space owned by Maytag to retrain prospective employees in other occupations.

Please read the article for details. The piece should be read especially by community and technical college leaders wishing to start up vocational programs.

Okay, that’s Iowa, but what about our state? Texas never had much of a manufacturing sector compared to areas in the so-called rust belt. Historically, our economic behemoths were agriculture, ranching, and extracting natural resources such as oil and gas. Certainly refineries and chemical plants in the Gulf Coast region represent manufacturing in the classic sense, and hence too must evolve as the needs of society change. If we all start driving electric cars, it would be a game-changer for our economy.

One of the many problems with worker retraining involves geography. If a laid-off worker wants to retrain, it may entail moving elsewhere to the hiring locale. But should a community college train someone to move away? This would be a hard sell to elected school trustees, who tend to come from the business sector of the local economy.

Furthermore, as pointed out in the article, older individuals often don’t want to go back to school. It’s frightening to step into an algebra class, when you haven’t found “X” or “Y” in decades. Not all good new jobs involve math, but many do. The writer also finds that men don’t like to retrain for jobs traditionally held by women, such as clerical and medical positions.

On the academic side we have the core curriculum—the beauty of which is portability in transfer most of the time. English 1301 is the coin of the realm, at least at Texas public institutions. But there is no real equivalent to the core when it comes  to workforce training. Due to the diversity of employer needs, the situation seems to cry out for customized apprenticeships.

Manual labor will undoubtedly dissipate as a profession if the physical task can be accomplished by a machine, or done overseas cheaply. Some jobs may be immune (construction comes to mind) from these forces, but it’s scary to contemplate the workforce of the future and how education is supposed to fill the needs of displaced workers.

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