While we would never want to reduce the value of education to the mere attainment of a job, we certainly cannot rationally be dismissive of the problem of college graduates living in their parents’ basements. This is especially true since those college degrees come at a price. With interest.
The dearth of gainful employment matching the educational attainments of the American populace is, alas, matched only by the dearth of any meaningful effort to grasp the manifest and profound disconnect between our educational establishments and the needs of the job marketplace. The answer, of course, is to connect them, and it will surprise none of the good distributists who read this publication that the only place that the connection can effectively be made is on the local level.
Fortunately, to do this we don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. In 1919 The School of Automobile Trades opened in Flint, Michigan for the purpose of training engineering and management personnel.1 In 1923, the school became the Flint Institute of Technology, and offered a four-year cooperative education program, enrolling more than 600 students. Cooperative education is a concept that involves alternating periods of academic study with periods of work experience in appropriate fields, and includes engaging students in productive work, rather than merely observing, and even features remuneration of students for work performed.2
In 1926, General Motors Corporation, then an innovative company, took over the school, renaming it General Motors Institute. It then began to use the school to develop its own engineers and managers. GM divested itself of ownership in 1982, and the school continues now as Kettering University, which still uses the cooperative model. Kettering works with its employer-partners to develop a curriculum suitable for employer needs, and to give students on-the-job experience that eliminates the need for acclimation when those students become full-time employees. Almost 60% of Kettering students go on to work for the companies that were their co-op employers during their school years.3
There are other cooperative education programs in the United States and elsewhere, and it is not the intent here to propose a total superimposition of Kettering’s, or any other, program in communities and states across the country. For example, Kettering is not tuition-free, and, as will be discussed in a moment, a greater cooperation between schools, local governments, businesses, and labor unions might render tuition, and thus usury laden student loans, unnecessary. Rather, the example of Kettering is presented here to show that a partnership between businesses and schools (half of businesses, schools, local governments, and labor unions) has already been demonstrated as a workable model. Thus, the suggestions that will be made here are not wholly speculative.
So what is being proposed? Simply put, the aforementioned partnership between local governments, local businesses, labor unions, and educational institutions to achieve, locally, full-employment, a skilled and well-compensated workforce, and general prosperity throughout the communities that adopt these ideas. This is how it would work.
A local government, like a city, would bring together the other members of the partnership to discuss what sort of workforce would be needed in the near and distant future. The businesses would be able to supply that information, and the educational institutions would develop curricula to educate a workforce meeting those needs. The cooperative model of education would be used, and students would have co-op employers during their education.
In places where there were no educational institutions, plans would be made to create them. Businesses could be asked to plan and finance those new schools, since it would be for their benefit that they would be created.
It is important to note that the schools will not be designed to turn out engineers and managers only. The teaching of skilled trades that can be utilized by local businesses will also be essential, as well as the teaching of skills which do not rise to the skilled trade level. Students will be able to pick among a variety of programs to best suit their desires and abilities. That’s where the unions will come in. Unions will be there to ensure that the compensation anticipated by the plan didn’t fall below the level necessary to live in the community without the need of such measures as food stamps or resorting to crime.
Bankrolling the operation will fall on the businesses and unions, and, perhaps, to a certain extent, the local governments. The idea would be to provide employment to the residents of the communities who develop this plan, not debt. But in order to make this work, the businesses would have to be incentivized sufficiently.
One obvious way would be tax incentives, which might encourage some business owners who otherwise would be dubious. Another would be requiring students to enter into contracts with their co-op employers to remain employed with them for a sufficient period of time after graduation to bring a return on the employers’ investment. (That wouldn’t be involuntary servitude, only a contract, which one is always free to breach, though he must pay damages for doing so.) Another feature of this plan is that, given that education will be conducted on the cooperative model, students would be able to work off much of the expense with their co-op employers.
Businesses, for their part, would contract to give hiring preferences to the cooperative education participants. They would also contract to remain in their communities rather than depart for cheaper labor pastures. Of course, they would be supplying a significant number of the instructors as well.
Unions would be given guarantees that wages won’t fall below the living wage level for the communities where this plan is implemented. They, in turn, could agree that all local wage disputes will be submitted to neutral arbitration, guided by objective and public standards, including, but not limited to, the living wage requirement.
It is, of course, anticipated that a plan of this kind will prove successful, wherever it is implemented. If that proves to be the case, then state governments, or even the federal government, might at some point become interested in providing financing. The financing would be welcome, but little more. The plans should remain local and adaptable to local circumstances. While general standards, such as prohibitions against discrimination, should be applied across the board, local agreements arising out of face to face meetings could only be replaced on the state or federal level by reams of barely decipherable regulations that would not likely be as effective, and certainly would not be as appreciated.
Let not the reader lament that a liberal arts education would fade into history if this plan became widely implemented. On the contrary, it would free up liberal arts education to serve its true purpose: to prepare a free people for constructive civic engagement. A liberal arts education isn’t meant to help people find jobs. This plan could also reduce the expense of a liberal arts education significantly, because teaching the liberal arts doesn’t really require the capital intensive features of our modern colleges and universities.
The goal of the plan proposed here is full employment that is well-compensated in every community in which it is implemented. There will be proof of its effectiveness, of course, only when it is tried. The fact that localities, rather than states or the federal government, will be the loci of implementation increases the chances that the attempted persuasion to engage in the experiment will be successful.
It is an idea.