Learning for Life

How Continuous Education Will Keep Us Competitive in the Global Knowledge Economy

 Learning for Life

Authors: Jason Wingard, Michelle LaPointe
Pub Date: September 2015
Print Edition: $32.95
Print ISBN: 9780814433638
Page Count: 256
Format: Hardback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814433645

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How Did We Get Here? A History of Education and Training in the United States

For millennia, skills learned as a novice were honed over decades to increase mastery but were essentially the same skills. Early in the 19th century, the majority of American workers were still employed on farms or self-employed as tradesmen or artisans. The industrial revolution changed the nature of work. (See exhibit 1.) By the end of the 19th century, most people were employed in low-skilled manufacturing work. The pace of change in the economy only increased in the 20th century when all types of jobs were transformed by technology. Now, in the new Knowledge Economy of the 21st century, change is constant and we must continuously improve our professional skills to keep up.

Insert exhibit 1 Gap Between Education and Skills

The Economy Recovers to a New Era

Although industrialization was introduced almost a century earlier, we can trace the dramatic shift in work and education to the Long Depression of 1873, when a dramatic decline in global demand for silver resulted in a series of bank failures and wide-spread unemployment. As the country recovered from that depression, the economy dramatically re-structured and became more industrialized. This re-structuring opened up categories of work that barely existed earlier in the century – and certainly not on the scale required to industrialize the economy. Eager for work after the Long Depression, workers moved to the new centers of manufacturing from across the U.S. and Europe. Initially, these new jobs were primarily semi-skilled . Although immigration produced almost an unlimited number of workers, few trained artisans or laborers sought employment in these new types of jobs. Given a limited supply of skilled workers, factory owners further re-organized the work— semi-skilled positions were specialized into specific, routine tasks to allow for the hiring of less skilled workers.

In contrast to the earlier agrarian economy –when youth learned trades and crafts through apprenticeships that lasted year –in beginning of the industrialized age training was almost entirely on-the-job. Given the low-skilled nature of the work, there was little promotion potential and very flat compensation. Nationally, in the decades immediately following the Long Depression, annual worker turnover exceeded 100% and 75% of the turnover appears due to employees quitting . Despite the constant flux of workers, employers paid little attention to developing the capacity of their workforce or retaining workers in their factories.

This changed during World War I, when immigration into the United States halted. Without a steady stream of workers, employers had to develop their local job markets, enhance the capacity of existing labor, and retain the workers in their factories . Companies had to compete with each other to hire and retain competent employees. The value of labor and the power of workers increased. Strong unions and increased labor protections further strengthened the position of employees. Employers began investing in their workforce by providing pensions, better working conditions, and training for specialized roles within the factory.

National Policies to Support Workforce Development

The employer investments in developing their workforce set a precedent for labor policy in the United States. We have a history of very limited public involvement or investment improving the quality of work. Formal evidence for this dates to the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education of 1917, issued by the national Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education during the period when secondary education became common in the U.S. This period was marked by a debate about the role of education and if the focus should be on developing academic skills or work-related skills. The Cardinal Principles explicitly laid the burden for developing work-related skills on individuals with little if any support from the school:*

“…the student gets to know him or herself and a variety of careers so that the student can choose the most suitable career. The student should then develop an understanding of the relationship between the vocation and the community in which one lives and works. Those who are successful in a vocation should be the ones to teach the students in either the school or workplace.”

In keeping with those principles, in the United States job training, professional development, and adult education have typically been offered by employers to increase organizational capacity or paid for by employees themselves to increase their knowledge and skills. The emphasis on private individuals and private companies has impeded the creation of a system for lifelong learning. Employer-sponsored programs have tended to be very job-specific, rather than providing portable skills and credentials or expanding an employee’s career path within the organization. Outside of employer-sponsored training, individuals have primarily relied on trade schools and community colleges. Despite an intention to allow the market to provide training for needed skills, the reality is that – given a lack of information for consumers and loose credentialing of the institutions – the market for job training, professional development and adult education in the United States is inefficient and does not meet the needs of workers.

The limited public investment in training and education for adults dates to President Roosevelt’s New Deal and was embedded in the Works Progress Administration, the Civic Conservation Corps, and the National Youth Agency. These programs were run through community organizations rather than connected with existing education institutions. These programs touted “a new technique in education – that is, education through work.”* New Deal investments in job training ended when World War II began.

Job Training for the Disadvantaged

In the 1960s, President Johnson’s The Great Society initiative created new job training programs. These included the Manpower Development Training Act of 1962, which only funded short-term (10-15 week) programs and offered job-specific training. The primary goal was to get the unemployed into jobs – any jobs. In 1973, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) consolidated existing job training programs and gave a greater role to states in designing and implementing programs. In 1982, President Reagan created the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) to encourage public-private partnerships to provide funding to employers who wanted to train workers. Over the 1980s, the federal government created numerous education and training programs, mostly targeted to provide second chances to the unemployed or those who failed to develop basic literacy and numeracy in high school. By 1995, the General Accounting Office reported that the federal government was spending $20.4 billion on 163 training programs, spread across nearly every federal agency. These programs were very disjointed and there was no effort to align them into a system. The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 provided additional funding for training for those who were unemployed and had limited job skills, but the services were mostly informational. Allowable education programs included GED, adult remedial education, and ESL classes*. WIA also created and funded One-Stop Centers and Individual Training Accounts. During this time, the federal government implemented Work First and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Action, which undermined previous efforts for workforce development by emphasizing the need to take any job, rather than building skills for more stable career .

Formal Education in the United States

In addition to job-based training and development, formal education became more relevant in the early 20th century. A recurring debate raged (and still rages) among policymakers: What is the purpose of public education? Many called for increased vocational education in the developing concept of high schools. In 1917, Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act which devoted the first federal dollars to vocational education. It was also during this time that secondary education became more common.

In the 1920s, comprehensive high schools were built across the U.S. It became increasingly expected that young people would earn a high school diploma. Although secondary education was not mandatory during the Great Depression it was strongly encouraged largely to limit the entry of young workers into the already tight job market.

After World War II, U.S. policy encouraged college as a way to expand the middle class and high schools began to focus on preparing students for higher education. The GI Bill is a famous example of a public policy to support college-going. During the 1950s and 60s, attitudes shifted in support of secondary education programs that emphasized college-readiness over job-readiness. This emphasis on college-going remains the prevailing attitude in the United States, despite the fact that many professions require additional education beyond a 4-year college degree and that an even larger number of jobs require technical skills but not a degree.

Changes in the Economy, Lags in the Educational System

Although college was seen as a direct path to a secure middle class lifestyle, during the 1950s and 60s it was possible to support a family working in a factory. Manufacturing dominated the US economy. Jobs were plentiful; semi-skilled labor was highly valued. By the 1970s, though, manufacturing jobs were disappearing— due in part to mechanization and in part to competition from the re-invigorated economies of Japan and Germany.

In the new economies of Japan and Germany the role of the worker was quite different than in the U.S. Even on an automated assembly line, manufacturers in those two nations used experienced workers to monitor and control quality on the line . Workers were empowered to stop the assembly line to adjust quality. Accordingly, labor and education policy in those nations invested in developing workers with critical thinking skills and refined technical skills. This autonomy did not exist in the American factory. Factory work in the U.S. remained semi-skilled.

The last decades of the 20th century marked another transition in the economy with parallel shifts in essential skills. The explosion of the computer and technology industry created many skilled jobs, although not necessarily jobs that require a four-year college education – especially since higher education has not caught up to the rapid changes in technology. Today, the US economy is characterized by innovation. Perhaps more than a college diploma, work in the 21st century requires good skills in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity (the 4 C’s ). These skills appear to be strong predictors of success in the technology industry and more generally in the Knowledge Economy.

Despite this, the U.S. system of education and job training is still preparing a majority of youth for semi-skilled work that has not been available since the early 1970s. Adults in this country who are already on the job have few supports to re-tool their skills for the new economy. Like Japan and Germany, other developed nations have invested in their education and training systems to better provide youth with 21st century skills when they enter the workforce. As noted before, Germany and Japan have long trained factory workers in problem-solving and leadership skills so they can monitor assembly lines and insure the quality of products manufactured. The misalignment of education and work in this nation ‒ combined with lower labor costs in developing nations and better primary and secondary education systems in other developed countries ‒ has driven jobs out of the U.S. economy.

In addition, the financial crash of 2008 reduced demand world-wide, further limiting the need for semi-skilled manufacturing work. But the recession that began in 2008 –like the Long Depression of the late 19th century – can serve as a catalyst to better align our systems of education and workforce development with the realities of life and work in the new Knowledge Economy. Education providers, driven initially by lean budgets, are collaborating with employers to strengthen their programs and connect students with authentic experiences relevant to opportunities in this economy. Employers are realizing there is so much undeveloped talent and support for innovative education, focused on the 4 C’s, will provide companies with employees who can adapt to meet the constant change in the global economy. Public and community agencies have focused reduced resources on combining and a aligning investments by employers and education providers. The United States is again recovering from an economic downturn in a new era. Continued prosperity depends on seizing the opportunity to collaborate and innovate.

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