By Patricia H. Kushlis
In his column on Sunday September 9, Tom Friedman points out the chicken and egg relationship between education and employment. The more education an American has, the more likely he – or she – will have a job. Case in point: Only 4.4 percent of American college graduates are currently unemployed. Conversely, 12 percent of high school dropouts are out of work. Yet fewer Americans – especially young men – are graduating from college than before likely because of escalating costs of higher education.
The employment-education ratio is straightforward and linear: the higher one’s education, the better one’s potential for finding and holding a job.
While one can quibble that money does not buy happiness, most societies including America’s, value work.
Put it down to the Protestant work ethic – or whatever – but lazing around on the family couch or playing Angry Birds ad infinitum on a laptop or i-phone is not a socially valued attribute. Not for long anyway.
This is why Friedman – as did Bill Clinton in his brilliant Democratic National Convention speech - argues that if the US ever sets aside more economic stimulus money it needs to be invested in community colleges, Pell grants and vocational training classes.
Furthermore, Friedman argues, education in the Internet Age – or the age of Globalization and Technological Innovation - is about the continual reinvention of the self which means a never-ending race to update one’s knowledge and skills. Resting on one’s laurels after completing college or less is a recipe for failure in this knowledge-based hyper-competitive world.
It’s the ability and willingness to learn complex tasks and the latest computer programs over and over and over again. So far so good: keeping the brain active also helps keep it healthy. And, Friedman also points out that in this globalized age, low skilled jobs are melting away like Arctic icebergs in the Global Warming sun. My analogy, not his, but I think you understand the meaning.
So where does the immigration impediment come in? What’s the connection?
Here’s the issue: the more highly skilled jobs that are made available to foreigners determined by visa quotas set by the federal government, the less investment an American company needs to put into training America’s own. Let’s face it: importing skilled foreign workers in large quantities is a cheap yet, in my view, socially counterproductive way to conduct business in these United States.
Nevertheless, hence the continual pressure from the private sector on the US government to increase the quota of visas for skilled workers from abroad. Companies claim they can’t find them in the US. They may well be right. But why? What about investing more in the people who are already here rather than contributing to an ever high unemployment rate that contributes to an ever larger permanent under-class? Better education for Americans is not necessarily a “quick fix” to the problem – but it would benefit the country and the community in the long run.
Why should the taxpayers have to foot the bill for the perennially unskilled unemployed when this country – as Clinton said – needs to pull together and get its act together. And it can. Seems to me that doing what needs to be done to refit and retrain its own for skilled positions now and in the future is a large part of it.
This reminds me of what the State Department did with too many of its employees in its Bureau of International Information Programs from 1999 on. Instead of maintaining and enhancing skills and equipment (both were largely at the cutting edge in 1998 when I left) through investment in the bureau’s own human capital and technology, they were allowed to deteriorate to the point that the bureau’s heart and soul – its information technology operation aimed abroad – is now run by outside contractors whose skills are far more (although I would argue not entirely) up-to-date but whose knowledge of US foreign policy objectives is questionable.
To function well, the bureau needs both. The irony is that this needn’t and shouldn’t have happened – except that State has always been a Neanderthal compared, say, to the Pentagon, in the information technology game.
Seems to me then that US-based companies should first look to invest in the education of their own communities and workers instead of extracting ever more privileges and tax breaks from cities and towns in which they have located or plan to locate. It might help if the federal and state governments would re-jigger the tax code to reward those companies that do perform “community service.” This means – by the way – far more sustained investment in pre-school through college education – and yes, beyond. And it means raising standards and – the hardest of all – shifting a community’s educational values.
Immigration to the US is at an all-time high. The polyglot of languages spoken in American schools is so vast that it is hard for even well trained teachers to cope. And the worsening budget crunch at the state and local levels negatively impacts American schools and education in particular: teachers are being fired for budgetary, not competency reasons. This means classes overflow; days and terms are likely shorter. In the end, students – and hence society as a whole – are short changed.
Maybe, just maybe wealthy companies should stop hoarding large stashes of cash in tax-havens off-shore or wherever and invest in their own communities in partnership with the local public schools. Might just pay-off business – as well as society - in the long run.