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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Be More Like Amazon?

Amazon is investing in training workers. This is also an opportunity for postsecondary education to do the same.

July 14, 2019
 
 

Last week Amazon announced its intention to invest $700 million to “upskill” 100,000 of its own employees.

Amazon’s focus is on tech-related training – software engineering, IT, cloud computing – because they anticipate needing employees for jobs such as data mapping specialist, data scientist, solutions architect, and security engineer. 

Obviously, it’s early yet, and I am under no illusion that Amazon is any kind of benevolent organization, but this strikes me as a good thing for Amazon’s employees. 

I also don’t see it as any threat to our nation’s post-secondary education institutions. In fact, I think if it’s the sign of a trend of corporations investing in employee training, it could be a good thing for our post-secondary education institutions.

I have heard tell from people of my parents’ generation (my folks graduated college in 1962), that post-graduate training was done as a matter of course when getting into business. Armies of young men would arrive at companies like IBM with their English or history or political science degrees, transcripts larded with their “gentleman’s C’s,” be taken under the corporation’s wing and shown the ways of business machines, launching a life of employment, security, and prosperity.

The American Dream

We now better recognize that The American Dream has been denied individuals who do not resemble those promising young (overwhelmingly) white (almost exclusively) men. It is not incidental that this same era featured free or nearly free college. Public higher education was viewed as a public good as long as it was primarily benefiting a particular part of the public.

This has obviously changed over the generations. Alaska is about to do lasting damage to its universities in the name of a one-time payout of a couple thousand dollars to its citizens. Something similar has been happening in slower motion in many other states. Perversely, even as public support has dropped, the belief that colleges should be focused on training graduates for specific careers has increased. 

The tension between education and training is difficult to reconcile and now that it’s clear that higher ed can’t be all things to all people, I would argue that leaving training to corporations is a good thing. Let educational institutions educate.

Amazon is notoriously difficult on employees from the warehouses where they are tracked constantly, and not even allowed bathroom breaks all the way up to the white collar positions, but in general, when corporations invest in training their employees, it tends to be good for those employees. I wouldn’t put it past Amazon to include some kind of clause where employees have to retroactively pay for any training previously provided for free if they leave the company, but when a corporation invests money in a resource, they are incentivized to make better use of that resource.

Some see this as a threat to traditional post-secondary education institutions, a poaching of potential new marketplaces for higher ed, and, if successful, potentially encouraging Amazon to disrupt undergraduate college itself. 

I don’t see this as likely, at least not on a broad scale. If there are existing educational functions of colleges and universities that can be successfully taken over by corporations, so be it. MOOCs didn’t work on a grand scale and were never going to, except at the margins. There is no killer innovation that will miraculously materialize. Those who believe this is possible are those most willing to reduce an education to content delivery on the way to a credential and education is simply not more complicated than that.

I also don’t think Jeff Bezos is foolish enough to involve himself in such an unpromising market.

This may mean fewer people choosing college if there is an attractive option offered through some corporate training program. This seems like a perfectly good outcome to me. I also think over time corporations will recognize that trainees who come with the experience of a two or four-year degree will prove advantageous. 

My hope is that if corporations return to training their employees, post-secondary institutions can return to educating them. 

Amazon is investing in training now because employment is strong and they must develop the workforce available to them, rather than relying on workers themselves to pay for their own “upskilling.”

This is an opportunity to also reinvest in education as a public good, to provide a bulwark against inevitable future downturns. Unfortunately, as Alaska shows, we’re heading in the other direction. It’s incredibly shortsighted. 

In this case, we should be more like Amazon and invest while the investing is good.

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