Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Two Big, Disruptive Ideas

Paid to produce, Schooled to work

Last week I attended a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. "Women at the Top of Government Contracting" featured four female C-suite executives and their views on overcoming barriers to achieve business success. Though a lot of time was spent on personal experiences and anecdotes I walked away with hints at two big, disruptive ideas.

In the political arena, the discourse on equal-pay-for-equal-work has focused primarily on women and the challenges they face in the workplace – especially when returning after raising a family. But what if we take this a step further? Not just gender, but age. What if a twenty-something comess into the workforce and possesses the same skills, produces at the same level as a fifty-something? Or take it up another notch: what if that twenty-something's skills exceed those of the fifty-something? Are we talking lower pay for or even displacement of the older worker?

Which brings us to the second idea. One of the executive panelists mentioned that her firms prefers hiring high school graduates rather than college graduates because her company can then train to the needed skill sets, but also because college graduates tend to move to other employment more quickly. So the political push that everyone seek a college degree results in – at least at the margins – higher employee turnover and (because of high school graduate retention) higher unemployment among college graduates that potentially have education loan debt.

Players in education and job training include parents, teachers, governments, schools, companies, and – gasp! – labor unions. There, I said it. Many people who piously advocate the "right to work" overlook the role of all these players in maintaining a trained and skilled workforce. But please don't confuse my mention of unions as advocacy for unionism. Far too many labor unions focus solely on growing the ranks of membership instead of developing the skills of its members. As a businessman, I occasionally rely on a specialty staffing firm to supply skilled workers that I can't find anywhere elsewhere or that I may need for a short-term project.

All the players in education and training are important in varying degrees for different jobs. It makes no sense to blindly promote college education when many jobs don't require it, setting potential employees behind in their career path (opportunity cost) and putting many in long-term debt without immediate prospect of employment. So, too, it makes no sense to bemoan the decline of trade unionism when promoting membership growth and cartel over skills development and market competition. Workers of all ages need to continually develop and hone skills for personal and economic growth. No single form of training gets the job done and none should be favored.

There is often a tug of war between those who favor eduction for work and those who love education for learning. In the end it's not about years in service or shingles on the wall; it's about every contribution to our individual prosperity and to that of our colleagues, communities, and country. And to the future of each, for whom we owe our greatest effort yet.