Bloomberg’s Plan for Reskilling America: The Quid without the Pro Quo
The Intercept usefully preports Michael Bloomberg’s proposals for higher education, focusing on plans to upgrade workforce skills along the lines desired by employers. Here’s the selection they excerpted that covers this, worth reading carefully:
There’s a lot here that would be useful to businesses located in the US if they want to take advantage of it: money for vocational degrees geared to business needs, improved credentialing for these degrees, and support for internships and similar on-the-job training programs. As the language of the press prelease makes clear, businesses would play a determining role in deciding what is worthy of being learned, how instruction and work experience would be carried out, what criteria would be used to ascertain skill acquisition, and how credentials would be standardized for use in an economy where workers primarily move horizontally across employers. Some of this is based on a partial reading of the German apprenticeship system, where businesses work closely with education and training institutions to promote similar types of skills.
So far so good. At the risk of being labeled a billionaire’s stooge, I think all of this is worth doing. Societies need lots of abilities that aren’t found in books, and lots of people are more oriented to this type of learning than the standard-model higher ed classroom. Let’s do it.
But delivering an improved American workforce to business without delivering business to the American people is pure exploitation.
Consider again how Germany does it. Most of the workers who go through the apprenticeship system are unionized. (How does Mike feel about that?) Unions are nearly coequal partners in establishing, overseeing and updating the apprenticeship system, like it used to be with the skilled trades in the US when the construction sector was mostly union. Large firms in Germany are required to allot half (minus one) of their supervisory board seats to worker representatives; smaller firms get most of their funding from public and cooperative banks which set limits on how exploitative they can be. All firms have works councils with jurisdiction over issues like work organization and skill. In other words, public policy in Germany does most of what Bloomberg is talking about, but it does the other half too, ensuring that the use of skills by business is at least somewhat responsive to workers’ interests. In addition, enlarging worker and public influence within the firm makes it more likely workers will be viewed as assets and not just costs, so employers will be true partners in these public-private partnerships.
And in my view, Germany doesn’t go far enough. There should be a requirement that all firms that draw on publicly subsidized skill development also emplace publicly-appointed educational professionals in supervisory positions, either on the board or in top management. Businesses need to contribute to other social goals too. This is not just a matter of being regulated so they won’t do egregious harm, necessary as this is, but also taking positive steps to solve pressing social problems. There should be representation of environmental, regional, social equality and other interests on boards as well, something the nonprofit sector has experimented with for decades. Like Germany we should promote public and cooperative finance and then adopt reforms to make these bodies more democratically accountable than they are over there. Finally, steps should be taken to gradually socialize ownership of corporations above some threshold size; I have sketched an approach here.
Bloomberg wants Americans to serve business interests. That would be fine if business interests also served Americans and were accountable to them.
UPDATE: David Leonhardt, who I’ve disputed in the past, has a column in today’s NY Times endorsing Bloomberg’s higher ed proposals. What I wrote before still stands.