Musing About Training

In the very old days, skilled tradespeople belongs to craft guilds that controlled entry into the trade, managed apprenticeships and established to some degree the standards of quality. While the concept of apprenticeship is preserved in Europe and in some skilled crafts here within a union organization (my son is an electrical apprentice) it has for the most part gone away.  After the second world war there was a broad interest in having Universities provide low cost advanced education for the masses. One would acquire a basic knowledge of  a field and reasonably expect that the specifics of how it was applied be covered in specific training once one was hired.

But this practice has largely gone away as well. Employers seem to expect that their new hires have been fully trained in the latest technologies by the college or university they attended. Instead of a broad theoretical background, education is expected to be job-specific, with the prospective employee bearing the full costs and the risk of anticipating employment market requirements in advance. Employers provide few hints, and no responsibility for changing their mind abruptly. If the market requirement shifts the job seekers are expected to suck it up, take out yet another crushing loan, and go back to school for even more years of training — with the hope that it won’t happen again.

And as with many other things, the costs of this specialized education are soaring as schools are transformed into profit centers.  Gone is the idea that public financing of education is an investment in the future.  And with this rise in costs there are all sorts of vultures circling to make a profit lending money to desperate students.  After all, the courts have sided with the lenders — bankruptcy affords no protection from crushing student debt.  In effect they have become the new class of indentured servants — bleeding into the financial system for decades.

Another trend has been the tendency of employers to seek new grads for jobs and avoid experienced workers. Ironic at a time when people are told that they must keep working longer due to the impoverishment of  the retirement system.  And the one thing this process is inexorably doing is squeezing out experience from the system — those famous mistakes and bad ideas that we all recognize when we do them again.  So we have a skills shortage and unfillable job openings because the available people just don’t have the right mix of skills or the finances to learn them. And as individuals, job seekers are all pretty much at the mercy of the employers whims.  Something will have to give — I wonder what it will be?

Could this be the time to bring back the old craft guilds — organizations to provide guidance (technical and moral), education and protection for the employees against the would be slave owners — oops, I meant employers.  If one needed an engineer, computer programmer, mathematician or surgeon the employer would go to the guild instead of the open market. Oh, hiring the brother-in-law for that plum senior position would still be possible.  After all, we just want to fix some of the unfairness in the system, and we cannot eliminate the people.  One would enter the guild when there was a sense of a career direction, and be schooled in the fields’ body of knowledge.  Apprentices would be overseen to ensure they picked up the best practices as well as the known ways to fail.  Training would be tied to some degree with employer requirements —   but with a filter to screen out impossible demands (I recall a want ad that sought a minimum of five years with a specific tool that had just been released. Not even the tools’ designers would have had that level of experience. HR departments seem to do this regularly.)

Oh, I know I haven’t thought this one through and I am sure it has a million defects. But I am appalled at the degree of unemployment among new grads, the crushing levels of debt these kids are carrying, and the degree that they have been made to bear the risks of anticipating the fickleness of employers needs. After all, if employers have too tough a time filling those factory positions then there is plenty of support to move the whole thing to some other place. Maybe the skills aren’t there either but the people are much cheaper and the government is probably more ‘cooperative’.  But what really worries me is the hollowing out of the country and the short-shortsightedness of these decisions. After all, if the future citizen is an unemployed, deeply indebted bum, what sort of a country will we become?

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