Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Letter from Langdon: Opportunity Skids

01/06/2011

driving in snow pa Gone Walkabout Driving through snow (here, in Pennsylvania) -- a skill learned early by rural teenagers.

Americans declared their independence from the King with the simple statement that everyone is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They could have summed it all up with one word: Opportunity.

Out here in the country, in the wintertime at least, everyone has an opportunity to get driver’s education. From the icy news back east, it seems safe to say city folks could use a rural refresher course in navigating slick roads -- something our kids learn early in life and never forget.

Unfortunately, remembering the value of educational opportunity can be a slippery business for all of us. Like winter-challenged city drivers, we are, it seems, doomed to relearn lessons of the past.
In a late December news article, Associated Press reporter Pallavi Gogoi asks, “Where are the jobs?” The short answer: Overseas. Corporate profits have never been better, but only because of corporate expansion across the pond. While the cost of U.S. labor is one obvious reason for outsourcing,  multinational corporations don’t like to tell American worker-shoppers they’re too expensive to hire. Instead, CEOs beg off on labor issues by saying they need to compete and expand foreign manufacturing to be closer to new consumers. At least one claims that education here in the US has taken a wrong turn, so that now workers in other nations have better skill sets.

How can that be?

For one thing, we’ve come to a point when bedrock basics aren’t considered enough in our modern world. Many U.S. kids today have a poor command of the three R’s (reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic). Meanwhile, how much of what we try to teach beyond the three R’s is really important for a factory worker to know? Judging from the work forces in other countries, like those across Asia, basic knowledge or any knowledge at all isn’t nearly so important as on the job training and a willingness to work long days for pennies an hour. Job prospects at developed-world wages are denied to many unemployed Americans, while hiring opportunities in China are so great at certain times of the year there is a shortage of rural workers

Do you suppose they all read and write at the 12th grade level?

pig on tractor Steve Ferree Snow-sculpted pig on a tractor, at the St. Paul, Minnesota, Winter Carnival.

If American education really is to blame for our high numbers of unemployed, where did we go wrong?

For one thing the drum beat to privatize all education has become louder over the last few years. Vouchers (education coupons funded with tax dollars) were promoted as a way to transition to a free market in education. That idea was popular with some, but public schools in our cities and in much of rural America have suffered, from the voucher system (now involving some 170,000 U.S. schoolchildren), the threat of its expansion, accompanying budget cuts and new unfunded government directives. Mandates without money place more burdens on stressed schools and may not do a thing for job hunting high school grads.

In effect, the higher cost of schooling and U.S. business strategies that claim “different” education is what we all need combine to drive the poorest among us into low-cost community colleges first, then into private schools. For an increasing number of high school grads, the high cost of attending a top-ranked school is almost unthinkable. With so many people competing for, and sometimes protesting limited space on the public campus, private schools have flourished at a higher cost--with less than satisfactory results. A recent Bloomberg news story reveals that not all private schools, including trade schools, can deliver on promises of fast job placement. In fact borrowing the cost of tuition can be a debt-ridden dead-end. Graduates are forced to settle for little or nothing in wages and for jobs they weren’t trained to do when they thought they were buying better opportunities through higher education.

Not long ago British students protested the rising cost of education there after their government made the rare move to raise tuition. The Washington Post points out that the cost of a Harvard-like education in the UK is still a fraction of what it costs here. Even more interesting, British legal challengers say that raising the cost of education contravenes basic laws of human rights.

penfield, NY Matt Bernius "Approaching 4 Corners in Penfield, New York," with caution

Seems like these days the Brits know more about individual rights and freedom than we do.
Where the cost of superior education is much less, with nearly 70 applicants for every quality job, applicants in the UK are told burger flipping might be the best they’ll do. That may be a better deal than college grads have in the U.S.: even with education in high demand, teachers in at least one state fight heavy odds against employment. At 60 to 90%, the odds are better for slippery roads AND a white Christmas in any given year in Wisconsin than is the chance a recent graduate in one major field will land a job there. That’s because there are about 100 applicants for every open position in Wisconsin schools.

Even in China, where subsidized students have been encouraged to bring home the best that overseas education money can buy, rising tuition costs on the mainland are in mind. Regulators have ordered profitable state-owned businesses to pay dividends back to government for funding social programs, including public education.

That’s the kind of thing that would make a U.S. business of today squeal like locked brakes just before a crash.

With schooling costs on the rise amid expanding industrial might, Chinese graduates have one clear advantage-- and it isn’t necessarily the ability to handle a car on icy roads.

At least there they know they can get a job.