Can this Indiana City re-invent job training?
When Charles Wolfram went to work at Studebaker’s South Bend, Ind., automobile plant after fighting in World War II, he was long on ambition but short on know-how. Nonetheless, he quickly found himself moving from unloading boxes with a small crane to a job that required more skill: torch soldering. From there, he became a metal finisher and, after that, a welder.
At each turn, Wolfram recalled, “I thought, you know, I’ll learn something different”—and so he did, all on the company’s dime. The top executives at Studebaker, Wolfram said, didn’t question that if someone came to the factory with “no experience, they had to train” him.
“We were geared to educating people,” Odell Newburn, another employee of the company during the 1940s and ’50s, remembered, adding that he’d always look back at the training he obtained as “very central to me.”
Two generations later, the prospect that U.S. corporations are going to teach new skills to their front-line workers has, by and large, gone the way of the Studebaker.
Over the past 18 months, my Drucker Institute colleagues and I have been working to figure out how to remedy this situation. Is it possible to build a new system that ensures people will have the tools they need to adapt, especially as workplace skills and knowledge are becoming obsolete on an ever-faster basis? In response, we’ve devised an innovative system of lifelong learning for South Bend that pulls together a wide range of players — employers, yes, but also educational institutions, government and nonprofit training entities, and community groups of all kinds. We aim to launch the system in early 2020, in collaboration with the office of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and the St. Joseph County Public Library.
We don’t have any illusions about how difficult it will be to get many businesses, in particular, to join in — in part because of how far we’ve come from the days of Wolfram and the Studebaker plant.
Like other elements of the social contract between employer and employee — job security, wages, health coverage and retirement benefits — corporate education has been scaled back over the past four decades. “Businesses are training far fewer workers than they did in years past,” the Center for American Progress noted in a recent paper on the topic. “And when businesses do train their workers, they tend to invest in the ones who are more highly educated or highly paid.”
There are prominent exceptions, such as Walmart and AT&T, and some businesses have started to dangle training as a way to attract workers amid the current tight job market. Yet scholars who have studied the issue leave no doubt: Corporate training has been on a steady decline overall. And unions, which once played a key role in training, have withered. The result is “a Catch-22,” the Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill has pointed out. “Many jobs require experience or training, but how do you get that experience and training if you can’t get into a job that provides it in the first place?”
Resolving this dilemma is not only a necessity for affected workers and their communities: As artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies usher in what some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s also a social imperative for anyone wishing to rein in income inequality. “As automation advances, a widening gap between the top and bottom of the labor market is emerging,” the consultancy Korn Ferry warned last summer.
What can be done to fix what appears to be a growing disconnect among workers, jobs and skills? Some experts have proposed strategies to spur companies to pour more money into training, including changes to accounting rules and tax policy. Others, meanwhile, are asking employers to fit into a larger training ecosystem. Skillful, [email protected] and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation are among those engaged in this kind of effort.
This is also the approach we are taking at the Drucker Institute as we prepare to build our lifelong learning system in South Bend. If it’s successful, we and our partner, the design firm IDEO, intend to assist other cities across America in adopting the model themselves. Walmart and Google.org, Google’s philanthropy arm, have taken the lead in funding the initiative.
What will our system look like?
Part digital and part physical, it will take what is a highly fragmented set of learning resources, identify those that have proved to be most effective, integrate them efficiently and make them available and inviting to the entire city — with an emphasis on ensuring that what’s being taught is relevant and accessible for the most economically vulnerable.
The hub of the system will be an online portal that will allow all of South Bend’s 100,000 residents to understand what skills are in demand based on timely employer input. It will then link them to opportunities to acquire those skills, hard or soft, either locally or through courses available on the platform. It will also let them sign up for mentoring sessions and job-shadowing experiences. And, crucially, it will keep a record of what has been learned through a badging and credentialing regime.
We will also use a network of physical spaces — including library branches and neighborhood tech centers — to supply wireless connectivity, host study groups and serve as a conduit to other support, like child care, to help workers train and study.
As we’ve laid the groundwork for our system, we have strived to consider the wants and needs of hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds from across South Bend. We’ve cultivated relationships with schools, colleges and universities; churches and neighborhood associations; workforce development agencies; and early-childhood and senior learning centers. We’ve also sought ideas from a host of companies in South Bend: General Stamping & Metalworks, Lippert Components, Ridge Auto Parts, LaSalle Hospitality Group and others.
What’s in it for them?
Like many employers throughout the U.S., those in South Bend complain that they can’t find enough workers with adequate skills. As our system gets up and running, it should be easier to do so, saving them time and expense. Indeed, we are confident that businesses in South Bend will eventually see such a positive return, they will help cover the system’s cost.
But we’ve also made clear that this isn’t a one-sided deal. Just as companies will be able to search the system to find qualified workers, workers will be able to search the system to find “preferred employers.” We’re still finalizing the details, but companies that receive this designation will need to give paid time or other incentives for their employees to use the lifelong learning system on a regular basis, as well as meet other criteria.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves. The era in which it was routine for companies to take prime responsibility for training workers like Charles Wolfram and Odell Newburn has passed.
But what we’re discovering is that employers are, in fact, willing to participate actively in a broader learning network — one in which players from across the community acknowledge that each has a contribution to make and that, by banding together, we can begin to tackle one of our nation’s most urgent challenges.
Rick Wartzman is director of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society, a part of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. His most recent book is The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America.
Article originally appeared on Politico.com. View the article here.