Is job training a zero-sum game?

Source: Inside Higher Ed

By David Moltz

Dec 08, 2009

As the Obama administration talks up its “green jobs” initiatives, some leaders in workforce development are concerned that more traditional skill trades within the manufacturing and construction fields are being deemphasized by community colleges looking for federal dollars to support new programs.

Among those worried are advocacy groups like the American Welding Society.

“The American Welding Society gets concerned when we see Congress act as it did this year, to discontinue funding for proven programs like the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technical Training programs in favor of brand new ‘green jobs’ education,” said Ross Hancock, the group’s spokesman, noting that the vote to discontinue has only passed the House so far. “That’s because right now, there is a shortage of skilled welders in this country, with welders retiring twice as fast as new ones enter the workforce. This trend is having a critical effect on our ability to compete in both ‘green’ and traditional industries.”

Hancock believes that the funding of more “green” job programs comes at the expense of supporting the training of students for more traditional skill trades. This trend, he said, is all too familiar to his organization.

“This is just a repeat of what we’ve seen in the past in vocational education, where something will become very popular in the education industry, such as the training of people to become computer operators or for data entry positions,” Hancock said. “There’s a big emphasis on them, and it always came at the expense of tradition skills training. We’re going down that same path again, like when we trained everyone to be computer programmers when what we really needed were more people trained in traditional trade skills for construction and manufacturing. I mean, sometimes you’ll see these computer labs sparkling and then you’ll see welding labs in mothballs.”

Bryan Albrecht, former president of the Association for Career and Technical Education and president of Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin, does not agree with Hancock’s either/or assessment. Rather, he argues that federal and other dollars directed at “green” job programs can also benefit and encourage training for existing, traditional trades.

“I don’t buy the myth,” said Albrecht of the idea that trades like welding are being shortchanged by two-year institutions in favor of new, “green” jobs. “Community colleges are very in tune with what the industry is requesting of them. ‘Green’ job training is connected to an existing pathway. For example, with solar energy, the core skill set is still that of becoming an electrician. A lot of times, we’re adding the use of new resources to enhance that training.”

Albrecht said Gateway, like most community colleges, has taken strides to update its traditional skills programs with new technology and with a new “green” focus. The college’s welding labs, for instance, are now fully automated. Though he admits these traditional skills training programs are changing, he does not think they are being deemphasized, as he believes some have a legitimate claim to being considered “green” themselves.

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