Education, education, education
2011 is careening toward the brick wall of year-end with no air bag in sight. Every day it seems a new, insurmountable crisis replaces yesterday’s headlines as we helplessly watch world markets collapse, national support systems wither away and access to future opportunity erode. Then there’s fear of other nations, something most American adults living don’t even remember first hand, having spent our lives nestled in the bosom of the world’s greatest super power. As an opinion columnist hobbled by a love of fact and circumstantial nuance, I am toying with defeat in my quest to take clear and sustained positions on most things.
But one thing is crystal clear to me: people need to know stuff. If Wisconsin and the United States are looking for one magic bean to regrow the verdant stalk of prosperity, an educated, skilled workforce seems like a no-brainer.
A couple of weeks ago I was a guest panelist on “Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes” (guest host, Jeff Wagner). One of our topics was the announcement that Wisconsin had lost almost 10,000 jobs in the month of October. Jeff asked each panelist for their solution. Alderman Bob Donovan was quick to point out that there are currently over 33,000 openings in Wisconsin that sit unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers, and suggested an aggressive focus on training and education to fill current and future available positions, thereby lowering unemployment and more successfully attracting companies to Wisconsin. In what may have been one of public affairs television’s weirder moments, both Mikel Holt and I agreed with Mr. Donovan. Wagner dismissed the notion as “interesting in the long-term, but not immediate enough to help right now.” Panelist Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon) recommended sticking with the current course of attracting businesses to the state through financial incentives.
I grew up in a classic, 70s-style single-parent family. That means my dad was nowhere in sight and never paid a dime in support. My mom had no post-secondary education but worked selling aluminum siding over the phone and cocktail waitressing two nights a week to feed me and my sister. When the bottom fell out of the domestic economy in the late-70s, my mom’s siding sales gig dried up. Extra shifts at the lounge didn’t fill the gap. A career counselor with the State of Iowa helped connect her to the resources she needed to both pay for college and navigate the system. My mom received her Bachelors in three years and her Masters in Social Work in another 18 months. It wasn’t easy; we had our stuff on the street more than once, lived with our pastor’s family for a while and were even split up for a time, with my sister and I each living with different relatives. But in the end my mom graduated with honors and began to build a successful career counseling at-risk adolescents and their families. She was still a struggling social worker when I graduated high school, but thanks to Pell Grants and other need- and merit-based programs, I graduated college with a manageable level of debt, which kept the pressure down while I began my climb up the pay ladder. Today you could call me a productive member of the middle class, an attainer of the American Dream.
But my story may become the stuff of legend. When I started college in 1984, a Pell Grant and a resident tuition grant covered about two-thirds of my costs (fun fact: tuition my first semester at Iowa was $612). This year, the maximum Pell Grant award is $5,550, with resident tuition, fees and room and board at Iowa costing over $21,000. That’s about one-fourth covered by the Pell Grant, and only that much for maximum recipients. For the rest, kids, you’re on your own. As higher education funding declines and tuition skyrockets, Rome burns. And if Nero really had a fiddle he’d be tuning up.
It’s a travesty by any measure. We are engaged – right now – in a global race to see which nation will be the brain trust for the 21st century, and we’re losing. We can’t even fill the jobs we have, and we’re apparently allergic to creating a skilled and ready work force to be at the future disposal of companies around the world. Most frustrating: the answer is right in front of us.
An October report from Deloitte & Touche and the Manufacturing Institute revealed that 5-percent – or 600,000 – manufacturing jobs sit open in the U.S. because of a lack of skilled workers to fill them. Sixty-seven percent of manufacturing companies report a “moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers.” And a report issued last week by the Wisconsin Hospital Association fires the warning flare that if we don’t increase the currently-projected number of primary care physicians in the state by more than 2,000 in the next 15-20 years, we will see a catastrophic lack of access to care in rural and inner city areas that would affect a significant portion of the state’s population. And even though the number of students in need of Pell Grants has skyrocketed over the last ten years, funding for all student aid has continued to decline, while Congress talks about “closing the tax loophole” of the student loan interest deduction. The Wisconsin Legislature’s tack? Increase the tax credit for companies that relocate here while cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from higher education. I don’t get it; I’m baffled, really.
Meanwhile, organizations like the Milwaukee 7 press on, hoofing it all over the world to bring international companies to Milwaukee. In late November, the group announced it had helped broker a partnership between Bayside-based software developer Tri-Sept Solutions and Indian tech firm Blue Star Infotech, Ltd., that could bring about 250 tech-focused, full-time positions to Milwaukee, with an average salary of $60,000.
Hopefully they won’t have to advertise in Chicago – or India – to fill them.