21st Century Continuing Education

Todd Washburn |

I grew up in a small city in upstate New York- population 50,000 at its peak. At that time, it had a dual-driver economy. There was the Air Force base and the mills. The former provided a population of 10-15,000 people who rented apartments, bought homes, and spent their paychecks in local stores, restaurants, service stations, churches and everything else in the city. The latter employed the locals. We had large cable mills- Rome Cable, General Cable and Revere Copper and Brass. There were small steel firms and heavy equipment manufacturing companies. There were union jobs with benefits and supposedly guaranteed pensions. These were the middle-class jobs we’re hearing about in the news today.
   Things have changed there over the years. The base closed in the 1995 realignment. The city population is now about 35,000. The mills are mostly gone. Those left are mainly smaller operations. The larger ones initially left to go south or west for cheaper labor and utilities. Many of those have since gone overseas. Jobs at home now tend to be non-union ones. No pensions. Benefits?  Maybe, maybe not. My friends work for the state government- mainly in one of the 3 prisons built there in the last 20 years, or at a large Walmart distribution warehouse. They’re lucky. Pretty secure, with benefits. But for a working class city with a blue-collar population, the glory days look gone.
   It’s not without some glimmers of hope, though. The air base is being redeveloped into a business center, and companies are coming. -- Smaller ones, but new jobs nonetheless. A new billion-dollar silicon chip manufacturing facility is under construction in the area with the promise of many new jobs- white, as well as blue collar.
   But here’s where the current political talk comes into the picture. And I may be wrong- and in ways hope I am.  But I don’t see those cable, steel and manufacturing jobs ever coming back to my hometown- no matter what. In our hay-day, what was done in those mills and factories couldn’t be done elsewhere. But that isn’t true now- and the economics dictate moving the jobs to where labor costs less. Sure, there are going to be exceptions. A local NC textile mill opens up. But it’s a small part of the overall industry and a small fraction of what once was.
   It seems to me that what’s really changed over the years is the expectations for the workers. I can remember guys coming to my dad’s gas station who had 20 or more years in the mills.  Most probably graduated high school, though I’m sure some didn’t. But they got that job- and if they needed to learn something to run a machine- the company taught them. But “continuing education” is something they would have scoffed at.
   I have a 16-year- old son. My wife and I try to impress upon him the idea that education- schooling- will never end for him.  It’s true for her and me.  It won’t matter if he has a high school diploma and works in a trade, has a bachelors and a white collar job, or a professional degree and occupation. Education can’t stop.  Of my closest friends at home, one has not and never will go back to school.  I’m just hoping his position lasts for the next 10-15 years until he retires.  Another, along with his wife, went back to school several years ago to do their bachelor degrees so they could move up in their jobs. They said they were at a dead-end without it. This is going to be the norm, I feel.  I’m not going to argue whether our education system is broken or not. But I think we need to be honest with students and workers alike. If they’re going to be and remain relevant in the economy of the future, they will have to be always updating or acquiring new skills. The days of “finishing your schooling” are gone. That makes it incumbent upon government and the private sector that there be affordable, cutting edge training available for workers. You can’t train for one career now.  Everyone is going to have several, regardless of education level. The economy- and industry- change much faster now than when I was growing up. Workers, tax-payers, and the education system need to understand that. It’s hard for a 50-year- old guy to go back to school when his plant closes.  For his kids, it might just be their next reincarnation.
Your thoughts?