In a Saturday Providence Journal article by Jennifer Jordan concerning Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation and the much-decried “skills gap” of the RI labor force, Rep. James Langevin (D, RI) proclaims a clear “disconnect in our education system and what businesses need.” Small-government types might be tempted to point out that Langevin is correctly, if indirectly, identifying the problem of government ineffectuality. Pre-college education, after all, has become largely an operation of government entities.
Why, the thinking might continue, would we look to government to repair the gap that its own operations have created? By pulling education away from the unique needs and interests of individual students and their families — investing it, instead, with mandates, priorities, and restrictions that filter down all the way from the federal government, through the state, and to elected local committees — the system has all but ensured that the practical objective of providing students with marketable job skills is not the functional goal of institutes of education. Public-sector labor practices hinder individualization of the educational experience, and government at all levels opens the system up to the pushes and pulls of special interests.
More than that, though, government’s increasingly central role in determining what students need and can have access to has created a culture that carries into the discussion of the skills gap itself. Sen. Jack Reed (D, RI) joins advocate Linda Katz, of the left-leaning Economic Progress Institute, in promoting the solution of “get[ting] more resources.” Just as the claim of public education advocates is always that more resources are necessary, so too, the skills-gap criers believe the solution is to provide them with more control and financing to craft solutions for others.
But the problem appears more and more to be cultural. Reed talks about the inability of employers to find workers for available jobs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is not merely a matter of unemployed residents with insufficient skills. As Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laurie White explains:
Advanced manufacturing jobs exist in Rhode Island, but prejudice about them being “blue collar” prevent some schools, parents and students from taking classes that would help students enter these fields, White said.
If “advanced” occupations are left vacant from prejudice, imagine the effect on jobs of an even less-glamorous nature. Students who have been conditioned to believe that diplomas from government schools would prepare them for adult life and further sold on college degrees as the magic portal to desirable jobs are hardly without basis for their frustration at finding themselves ushered toward employment below the standards they were told to expect.
Yet, White’s suggestion is that “we need to get the message out that it’s cool to make stuff.” We, one supposes, means the collected interests of business groups, government officials, and special-interest advocates.
An alternative path would be to give young adults reason to understand that “settling” on a career is not “cool,” but obligatory — a stark necessity of survival. And then, they and their families must be empowered to make educational choices based on their intimate knowledge of their own circumstances, aptitudes, and interests.
That is, knowing full well that they will have to make their own way in the world, children and their parents need the have the freedom to assess their own risks and opportunities and apply their own resources accordingly.