Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Confessions of a Community College Dean

Should a community college train people for the industries that are currently there, or for the industries that seem likely to be there in the near future?

I’ve been chewing on this one in light of some recent proposals floating around to get students prepared to certain kinds of manufacturing firms that, in my humble estimation, may not be much longer for this continent. (To be fair, a similar objection could be lodged at certain kinds of journalism programs, though I suspect that journalism will morph rather than die.)

I can imagine arguments on both sides, and I’ll admit being half-convinced by each.

On one side is the perfectly valid argument that students need jobs now, not years from now, and there’s an inherent difficulty (if not arrogance) in trying to read the future. While some broad, system-level trends may be legible, they don’t necessarily tell you what will happen in any given local market, or with any given company. Even if, say, manufacturing is on the decline nationally, that doesn’t mean that every single manufacturing company will either go under or go overseas. And if a few of the survivors are local, why the hell not prepare students for them?

There’s some truth to that. Even if the job only lasts a few years, that’s still a few years of gainful employment that might not have occurred otherwise. And who’s to say that one opportunity won’t lead to another?

But then there’s bitter experience. Having gone to grad school in an evergreen discipline in the 90’s, I saw and experienced firsthand the frustration of doing everything right only to emerge with a credential nobody wants. Having grown up in a city that’s still paying the price for putting so many eggs in the basket of a single industry, only to wind up with egg on its face, I’m a little nervous about pretending not to notice industrial decline. As late as the 90’s, the American car industry was doing great, riding the wave of SUV’s (and the undercurrent of cheap gas) as far as it could go. We know how that turned out, and it’s not like nobody saw it coming.

It’s one thing to be blindsided by change; it’s quite another to shut your eyes to it and pretend it’s not there.

Even the “buying time” scenario -- a few years of gainful employment will give you time to adjust to the next big thing -- seems more optimistic than history suggests is warranted. What seems to happen instead is that as the immediate crisis recedes, people turn their attention elsewhere and just assume that everything is back to normal.

I don’t want to contribute to a false sense of security, but I don’t want to sacrifice other people’s real opportunities to my own intuitions, either.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Should cc’s spend resources on training people to work for dying industries?


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