Promises, Promises: Job Training, Higher Education, and Government Funding

With the rise of the housing market came a corresponding increase in trades to support it. Real estate agents, landscapers, painters, carpenters, stagers, interior designers…all of these trades exploded, some meteorically, because there was such a demand for them. Students with an interest in them were encouraged to pursue education and training. Assured that they would always be able to find employment, that they could build their skills into a sustainable lifelong career. Some, like real estate agents, were promised their chance at the American dream of wealth and power if they worked hard enough; sell enough houses and those commissions add up. You, too, could be a broker-owner. The sky is the limit.

And then came the crash. Some of these jobs had always been seasonal; construction workers and landscapers already knew what it was like during the off season, when there was no work for them because everything was buried in rain and snow and frost. But even the seasonal work trickled to a halt, while people used to full-time employment started learning what it was like to work part time, and then not at all. Growing numbers of people with skills, who were good at their jobs, suddenly started to have no future.

The jobless rate in this country is, obviously, a cause for concern, and a number of measures have been proposed to address the issue, to promote employment, to boost the number of people who are working. Some of those measures have included discussions of employment training, a recognition of the fact that this economy is going to result in fundamental repatternings and shiftings. The housing market will recover, because it always does eventually, and it will even return to that bubble level, setting up for another round of boom and bust cycle. It will not do so fast enough for people with skills geared towards the housing market to survive.

So, the proposed solution is job training. Take people who do not have marketable skills and provide them with skills they can use to seek employment and rebuild careers. Which, for people in that position, must be really frustrating. To have sunk that investment of time, energy, and money into developing one career, only to find out, oops, you need to pick a new one. What’s worrying me, though, is whether we have the infrastructure and institutional support for job training, something which I support on premise because people who want to learn new skills should be able to acquire them.

One of the casualties of the budget cuts in the United States is the education system. Fewer high schools are able to offer vocational and technical training and even in schools dedicated to this, it can be hard to meet the needs of students, to keep pace for the demand for spots. Some vocational and technical schools are closing down some program offerings and degree tracks because they don’t have enough money to fund them. The same carries through well beyond high schools to community colleges, technical schools, and other educational institutions. People who want to go back to school to acquire new skills and who qualify for assistance may actually have trouble finding programs that suit their needs.

At the same time the government is promoting job training and is encouraging people to return to school, it is yanking the funds schools need to support their students. Many schools were already struggling to provide adequate student services even before, and now, with an influx of new students, some are strained to the breaking point. Especially in practical skills training programmes, capacity is a real issue. You can only fit so many students in a shop, only supervise so many people performing complex tasks. When schools don’t have funding, they may not be able to provide as many classes or as wide a range of classes.

With one hand, the government encourages people to go back to school. Not just to acquire directly applicable technical skills but also to pursue more academic degrees, bachelor’s and graduate education. The government assures us that it wants an educated populace and that it wants to create opportunities for people in the United States through education. Better living through learning.

Yet, it removes the very funding necessary to provide students with the materials they need to succeed in school. Student loan debt is skyrocketing because grants and eligibility guidelines are shrinking. Schools are losing endowments. Community scholarship programs are running out of money. Colleges and universities at all levels are struggling with funding issues. And they’re being inundated with new students who want services, who want assistance, who want education, and will not be able to get it. The problem here is not ‘too many students,’ is not the audacity of people demanding education, but is a fundamental breakdown in the structural systems that are supposed to support education in the United States.

You cannot tell people to pursue job training and then take away the tools they need for that training. This is absurd. And it has long term consequences. Discouragement is a very real issue. Students who cannot get the classes they need to graduate in time, who enter programs only to find them canceled halfway through, who get frustrated with overcrowded classes and inadequate services, may not return to school. They may work in low-skill jobs with limited opportunity for advancement and development, barely eking out a living on the minimum wage that fails to pace inflation. This is what we talk about when we talk about a lost generation and people who want to give up because they feel like they have no future.

And the government can neatly position this as their own fault; it encouraged job training! It encouraged people to pursue higher education! It’s not the fault of the government that people are failing!