Open Door to What?

Amy E. Slaton questions the assumptions behind the push for speedy job training at community colleges.

May 25, 2010

"Open the Door Now." With these words, probably meant to be taken literally and figuratively, educators and planners in a northern Ohio county tried to garner votes for a new community college in 1967. Their flier (above) explained that the state had already approved financing, and at a cost of just $10 per voter per year, the region could have a better-educated workforce, new ways to attract industry, and ready opportunities for "those who might not otherwise be able to afford a college education." To support this educational initiative was simply "good citizenship"; a new community college assured progress for individuals and society alike. The boosters successfully made their case and Lakeland Community College was born. The college flourishes today, and in many ways embodies a picture of American opportunity that has motivated public educational planning for generations.

It is a vision as upbeat as the peppy young couple on the flier, a pair presumably heading off not just toward their classes but also to lifelong employment. Unlike elite four-year institutions of higher learning, vocational and trade schools and community colleges have historically held the explicit role of bringing economic opportunity where it otherwise might not exist. "Sub-baccalaureate" programs have provided job-readiness to populations that could neither afford nor readily attain admission into four-year programs. To other students they have brought the prospect of transfer into full-fledged bachelor's programs. In all of these ways, such educational programs have seemed a reliable instrument of democracy.

And jobs have come to the graduates of certificate and associate programs, or to those who have simply taken individual courses on specific topics, as that training has directly answered industrial demands for specialized labor. As Lakeland's promoters pointed out four decades ago, vocationally focused education can quickly and flexibly provide qualified workers. For-profit trade schools and colleges have lately come under scrutiny as some appear to exploit the desperate, taking students' money without providing genuinely useful training or credentials. When it comes to the world of public community colleges, though, the fit between our ideas of educational opportunity and a thriving productive economy seems just about perfect.

But with a broad lens, we also might see a path toward a more democratic system of postsecondary education. For one thing, lower-income and minority students are today more extensively represented in the nation's 1,200 community colleges than are higher-income students. While that fact could be cast optimistically as a sign that those who can't easily afford college tuition are not stopping their education at grade 12, it actually indicates that merit as a criterion for university entrance is overwhelmed by students' demographics.

The fact that class, race, ethnicity, gender, disability and age often constrain educational opportunity is conveniently ignored by conservative analysts now proposing that we steer more American young people away from college and towards less costly and shorter training programs (many others have lately joined Charles Murray's call for a national contraction of university enrollment ). As a justification for this agenda, these critics cite dropout rates among groups they choose to identify as unlikely to complete college (a body of students that is "incidentally" disproportionately black and nonwhite Hispanic). They also characterize college as a waste of time and money for those who end up as mail carriers, store clerks and hospital orderlies. These two assertions, the first based on very selective logic and the second baldly elitist, become particularly nasty in tandem, making the college aspirations of minority or poorer Americans seem positively uppity. They also reinforce some historically troubling features of our tiered system of higher education. It seems to me that the system can do more to equalize economic opportunity.

I'm particularly interested in how our colleges and universities distribute opportunities in manufacturing, construction, transport, health care, and other workplaces that rely on knowledge of machines and technological systems. These are realms in which we are used to seeing large numbers of little-trained laborers, a somewhat smaller number of technicians or technologists (as we label those who undertake on-the-job or school-based technical training that does not result in engineering degrees), and a few highly-trained holders of engineering and other science degrees. Levels of pay, autonomy and job mobility rise dramatically as we look up the pyramid and differentials in occupational security and earning power are accordingly extreme in the American technical workforce. This bottom-heavy structure neatly reflects the familiar needs of industry. But while Murray and his ilk would have us further decrease the ranks of those at the top of the pyramid, keeping more folks down in the position of the least educated, I want to question the necessity for a pyramid in the first place.

Some scholars have been asking for years if this extreme stratification is the only way to organize modern labor. Have we simply gotten used to a narrow vision of technical work in America, one that leaves a great many people in lower-paid, unsatisfying jobs, ill-equipped for more satisfying and creative work, while the most privileged among us hold onto our advantages in education and work as in society in general? And the question for today: Do community colleges, providing as a rule short, vocationally focused programming, actually stand in the way of more people gaining more knowledge, and doing more interesting work, despite the relative good these institutions have done for individuals over the generations?

Without slipping into the most radical forms such critiques can assume, I hope we can indulge in a little broad-brush history lesson to imagine some answers to these provocative questions. Since the first stirrings of industrial mass production in the early 19th century, technical labor in the U.S. (as in other industrialized nations) has been based on the idea that the best and only practical way to organize that productive labor is as a highly stratified system. This model has held that companies should employ as few people as possible in positions that require extensive education, while maximizing the proportion of employees at the lowest training and wage levels. Where machines and automation can replace skilled workers, thus lowering production costs even further, so much the better.

This all brings down the cost of doing business, which means that the things America produces -- from bread, shoes, and antibiotics to iPods, eyeliner, and Jet Skis -- can cost less to those who purchase them. Our standard of living goes up. Supposedly, when companies profit enough, they hire more workers (albeit, not always American workers). A few highly skilled engineers and executives will always be needed to do the invention and management, it is held; but those are seen to be special tasks, undertaken far from the assembly line, coalface, or warehouse by a handful of experts.

We are so familiar with this model of industrialized life that it is very, very hard to imagine alternatives. The idea that we might go back to the "vertically integrated" work of artisans -- the shoemaker who designed and fabricated entire shoes; the builder who designed and constructed entire structures -- seems outdated and impractical. Markets would collapse; the U.S. economy would crumble as we lost our competitive global edge. This customary understanding of technical work has meant that if some jobs require nothing beyond a rudimentary education, while others involve some postsecondary training, and only a relatively small number require advanced college or graduate training, that seems natural. If many jobs are dull, dangerous, or lack security and hope for promotion, that, too, is understandable. And two-year colleges have their place in this schema, with programming geared towards employment somewhere in the middle of this hierarchical system, most often pursued by people without the means to attain four-year degrees. Our meritocratic ideals make it feel like most people will eventually get the level of education and job they "deserve."

And indeed, only a very radical economic vision would propose that we cast off mass production or reject modern management altogether, or sacrifice the astonishing scientific, engineering and medical advances that highly specialized education and research have brought us. But what about attempting some incremental change? What about a system in which more people had a chance to gain more skills, to undertake more challenging work, to contribute more to every facet of production, and get paid more in the process? Corporate profits might shrink if some workers' salaries rise, but productivity need not diminish; just the opposite.

Stick with me here, and try to imagine the work of our industrial culture divided up in some unfamiliar ways. For example, why do we see the work of industrial innovation, design and planning as entirely separate from the work of production, assembly, repair and maintenance? These distinctions are artifacts of our highly stratified labor system. Sure, some of our most complex modern technologies demand extreme specialization: designing a power plant or heart-lung machine or fiber-optic system may require years of focused education and research. But in the day-to-day work that surrounds machines in factories, construction sites, hospitals, nuclear facilities or wastewater treatment plants, people who do "lower level" technical work are already innovating. They are problem-spotting and problem-solving as technical workers have always done: taking advantage of experience and intellectual curiosity to build bodies of knowledge about the machines and materials with which they work each day. And a few employers already reward such efforts. It is disingenuous to say that those without four-year degrees are incapable of significant intellectual contributions, or that those with higher degrees are necessarily the most productive of industrial employees. Sociologists have been carefully researching those sorts of presumptions, since right around the time that Lake County, Ohio, was creating its community college, and have showed them to be in error.

Their findings help us see that educational programs could systematically prepare more technical workers to make sophisticated technical contributions. By the same token, if those who design bridges or food processing equipment or medical apparatus (normally, degree-holding engineers) also routinely spent time in the fabrication or daily use of those technologies, perhaps their designs would more closely reflect practical conditions. The conventional vertical split among all of these tasks could be rethought, bringing higher level analytical skills to some jobs where they are now rarely encouraged and more routine material encounters to jobs that normally exclude those important aspects of technical experience. Educational reforms could help make this happen.

Do we do away with community colleges? Of course not. But this integrative model of technical education and work might include gearing a great many more sub-baccalaureate programs towards transfer into four-year curriculums, as does one community college recently described on this site. Eligibility for higher level technical training would thus increase drastically. Or, we could enrich the training now associated with existing technical occupations, whether computer maintenance and repair, factory machining, or sewer inspection, to incorporate more design and planning skills. Shake up our fundamental assumptions about skill, aptitude and efficiency, and a whole world of creative, rewarding and equitable change to technical education and work opens before us. This seems to me like a future well worth exploring.


Amy E. Slaton is associate professor of history at Drexel University. Her new book is Race, Rigor and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line (Harvard University Press, 2010).


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