Renewing the Social Contract of Employment: Education and Training

Last month I attended an interesting conference, titled “Millennials Rising,” sponsored by the New America Foundation. The purpose of the conference, held at the very nice (very Millennial?) Long View Gallery in Washington, D.C. was to identify key concerns of the Millennial Generation around politics, economics, work, family,  and other key areas of life.  Having taught and worked with many Millennials, I could not resist the temptation to be  a Generation X lurker at the conference.

The conference covered many issues, but there was one theme that predominated–namely, the dual bind of the cost and necessity of college and other forms of education in order to have a chance of getting a “decent” job in an economy that has already been incredibly harsh to Millennials, as they seek to establish themselves in work, family, and the other trappings of middle-class life.

As with health care, retirement-planning, and so many areas of life in our advanced, modern, and very complex society this is another area where the cost and risk have been shifted to individuals–in this case Millennials (and others) who struggle to get a basic education and then retrain and retool as necessary over the course of their careers. Of course, it also places quite a burden on educators and educational institutions, as they are continually prodded to justify the cost and value of the education they provide.

At one point, following discussion of the privatization of public higher education and the increased cost of even this historically most affordable form of higher education, the desire to intervene became too much for one conference attendee (yours truly), even though she had been trying to keep in “listen mode” for much of the conference. Herewith the the intervention:

My brief “stick it to the corporations” manifesto generated a range of thoughtful remarks from the panel about apprenticeship programs, public-private partnerships, and the changed nature of the employment contract. Kevin Carey, Director of the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program, memorably described the current corporate attitude as one of “Wouldn’t it be great if the government could pay for something that I can just have?” The “corporate welfare” dream at its finest!

Incidentally, the book that I mentioned in my question about employer responsibility for addressing the alleged skills gap is Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It by Peter Cappelli, who directs the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School and has also written about the need for talent management in the related book Talent on Demand. In truth, after reading it, one wonders how anyone gets hired for anything anymore!

But the question of employer responsibility for job training is an important one not only for young people entering the workforce. The unemployed who are often told that the need to get more education and skills, those seeking a career transition to a new field, and even securely employed people who just want to continuously develop their skills for the benefit of their own career development and in ways that often benefit the employer, as well.

Kevin Carey’s point about the changed nature of the employment contract when it comes to job skills and training is an important one, but it is also incomplete. Supreme Court justices and a dwindling number of tenured university professors are about the only ones who can expect lifetime job security anymore. Most of us will now hold ten or more jobs–some of them in entirely different fields. For Millennials, job-hopping has even been described as the new normal. Even in the course of holding one job, technology is changing so fast that most of us need to continue learning just to keep doing well at the jobs we have.

The need for “on the job training” should not be sneered at, nor should employers balk at investing in development of skills for those who may “leave.” We are most likely all going to be leaving jobs at one point or another, but if our loyalties and skill sets are now to entire fields, as Carey observes, then those skills are not going to be wasted. They may benefit a competitor in the short term, but they also benefit the wider field of industry and society as a whole. We all benefit from a more educated and innovative population.

And who’s to say that the employees who leave a company won’t return? If we’re all job-leavers now, then many of us are carrying around good or bad impressions of the companies we have left. The review pages of Glassdoor.com and similar websites are filled with negative comments from ex-employees about their former employers. But it might be the case that corporations that foster their employees professional development fare better in the memories of their former employees–and this might be a form of goodwill from which corporations themselves could benefit.

Education is a public good as well as a private good. Corporations want skilled and well-trained employees, but the full cost of that training should not be born by job seekers alone. Many of those skills will need to be learned “on the job” anyway. The corporate sector should step up to the plate when it comes to job training rather than barricading itself behind ridiculous human resources hurdles that even its own executives could not pass were they seeking their jobs today. The social contract of employment that links employer and employee needs to be renewed, if not redrawn entirely, and corporate responsibility for training, whether on their own or in partnership with higher education, is key. Corporations need to train the employees they want to see in the world!

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