By Ruth Conniff
Wisconsin workers face a lousy jobs picture this Labor Day, according to...
“This concept that you can be anything you want to be — we can’t tell our kids that, because the jobs aren’t there,” one executive bluntly said.
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is twisting state education programs to serve employers, especially those in the resource-extraction and defense industries. These companies have found a champion in Tim Sullivan, former CEO of Bucyrus International, Inc. Since retiring last year after brokering the deal to sell Bucyrus to Caterpillar, the world’s largest mining equipment manufacturer, Sullivan has been working hard to reconfigure public education in Wisconsin for their benefit.
Sullivan is fond of talking about workforce development as a “cradle-to-grave” enterprise. At a meeting last week of the governor’s newly created Career and Workforce Readiness Council, which Sullivan chairs, he said, “This group was formed based on the understanding that workforce development starts at birth and ends at death.”
Sullivan went on to explain the purpose of the group: “What we have to do is to address a system that’s not addressing the needs of our employers today.” By that he means the entire public education system on the one hand, and manufacturing employers on the other.
During the meeting several presentations were made by business owners who reiterated the point that manufacturers couldn’t find enough of the right kind of people to fill job vacancies. They blame this fact not on the wages and benefits packages they are offering, but on the failure of the public education system.
The solution to their problem? A slick public relations campaign aimed at high school counselors, students and their parents touting the benefits of manufacturing jobs combined with a “realignment” of resources within the K-12, technical colleges, and state university system education budget to create a school-to-work “pipeline” that begins in the 6th grade.
S. Mark Tyler, president of OEM Fabricators, which makes parts for the aerospace, oil and gas, railway, power generation and other industries, gave a power-point presentation to the Council entitled “Gold Collar Careers & A Manufacturing Pathway.” Tyler also serves as the president of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board, as a regent of the University of Wisconsin System, and as the chair of the West Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.
In his presentation, Tyler bemoaned the lack of student interest and decline in demand for tech-ed classes in high schools. He attributed this to an out-of-date perception of the nature of manufacturing jobs, and unrealistic goals of students and their parents.
“This concept that you can be anything you want to be — we can’t tell our kids that, because the jobs aren’t there. We’ve got to be honest with our kids.”
He emphasized the importance of high school guidance counselors, teachers and coaches to get the message out to kids.
This dark vision of our children’s future as determined by available jobs turned even more cynical when Tyler talked about “leveraging dreams.” Having killed their aspirational ones by teaching our kids that their future will be limited by the terms and conditions of the job openings on offer by local employers, Tyler suggested that their acquisitive dreams be manipulated as a way to channel them into the pipeline of manufacturing.
Discussing the Gold Collar Careers public relations campaign, Tyler noted that just telling kids how much money they could earn in manufacturing wasn’t enough to convince them to sign up for factory life. Tapping into a kid’s consumer desire produces better results, however.
“We use imagery to show what they can get with the money because the money doesn’t resonate, but a Mustang GT does,” said Tyler.
He took this logic one step further, describing the end result of a successful high school student apprenticeship: “Once they get into the pay cycle, we’ve got them hooked, because when they step out they lose a paycheck.” And you need a check to make payments on that Mustang GT.
This PR campaign has been taken up by the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Department of Workforce Development. It will be pushed on students and their families when school starts in September, and at events such as the Manufacturing First Expo in Green Bay.
As part of his presentation, Tyler showed a slide of the companies supporting the Gold Collar Careers campaign. It read like a Who’s Who of oil, gas and mining:
Oil & Gas industry suppliers:
· Schwing America, Inc.
· National Oilwell Varco
· PJM Putzmeister
· Canrig Drilling Technologies Ltd.
· Meggitt Defense Systems
Mining, Heavy Construction & Railway serving the Oil & Gas industry:
· ConverTeam (General Electric)
· Metso Minerals
· P&H Joy Global
· Loram Intertractor America
· Terex Cranes
· Manitowoc Cranes
Contributing to the chronic under-funding of public education by dodging their fair share of taxes and demanding tax credits, these corporations still want more, and they don’t mind taking it from children. Tim Sullivan has already given notice that the $33 billion biennial K-12 budget is in his sights, and he hinted at the state higher education budget as well.
Tyler noted that it costs $7,000 to orient and train a new worker at OEM, but that participating in apprenticeship and “public-private partnership” arrangements with local school districts and technical colleges reduces those costs significantly. It also allows them to get a couple years worth of cheap, publicly subsidized labor out of young people while the employer decides whether or not to actually hire them. “OEM wants to move recruiting costs into long-term training costs so we can sort them out early and avoid hiring mistakes,” said Tyler.
At the end of the Council meeting, Sullivan announced that a report with extensive recommendations about allocating more of the public education budget for workforce development initiatives like job training and Youth Apprenticeship programs will be rolled out to the public on August 21 at the Council’s next meeting. Few people on the Council knows what is in the report yet, and they may not find out until the day before it is unveiled, though Sullivan hinted that “performance-based funding” would be part of it.
Kevin Reilly, president of the University of Wisconsin System of twenty-six college and university campuses statewide, practically begged Sullivan to give him more lead time so that he could consult with the chancellors of his member institutions before publicly commenting on it. “I would strongly urge you to give us the opportunity to see it first, otherwise it’s going to be messy,” Reilly said.
Responded Sullivan: “It’s going to be messy anyway.”
Rebecca Kemble covers Wisconsin for The Progressive. Over the past month she has reported on a special Legislative Committee to Improve Educational Options in High School, the Wisconsin Workforce Investment Council and Competitive Wisconsin, all initiatives aimed at giving manufacturers political power in resource allocation, curriculum, and programming decisions in the state’s K-12, tech college and state university systems in the name of “workforce development.”
Rebecca Kemble reports for The Progressive magazine and website. She also participates when she can in the Solidarity Sing Along.