Rahm’s gift to the 1 percent

February 14, 2012

Pearl, a blogger who comments on the City Colleges of Chicago, looks at Mayor Rahm Emanuel's effort to hand over community colleges to the corporate agenda.

ON DECEMBER 12, 2011, Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivered a speech at a private meeting of the Economic Club of Chicago (ECC). There was no press. He was among friends--very rich friends. They told him so. In his introductory remarks, the new president of the ECC, John Cunning, was generous:

Rahm rose to become the president's [Bill Clinton's] chief political advisor, and he scored many victories during his first White House tour, including securing the North American Treaty--the North American Free Trade Agreement passage. Rahm left the Clinton administration in 1998 to return to Chicago, embarking on a successful three-year stent [sic] as an investment banker. As a result, Rahm, you left the 99 percent and joined the 1 percent. Welcome aboard! Good to have you.

So Emanuel spoke frankly. He delivered on a silver platter the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) to his business friends. In just a few minutes, the mayor reversed many months of denials by CCC Chancellor Cheryl Hyman regarding the conversion of the CCC system into trade schools.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

"We are going to remake our community college system into a skills-based, vocational-based educational system," said Emanuel to a crowd full of corporate heads. He was quite explicit about his plans: "Every year we will modernize two new schools and match them with partners in the private sector, to train the workers for our factories, for our offices, for our hospitals, for our hotel industry and for our infrastructure."

Explicit, in a way he and the CCC administration have not been with the media, nor the faculty, staff and students of the CCC.

As a matter of fact, none of the press releases sent by the office of the mayor or the CCC administration regarding this speech contain any reference to the conversion of the CCC into a vocational school system. When Chicago Reader reporter Deanna Isaacs blogged about this speech, she listed the press release as her source. On our "Reinvention Mirrors" posting regarding this matter, we also used this press release, which seemed to contain more of the usual recasting of programs already in place.

We were wrong. The announcements for Olive-Harvey and Malcolm X Colleges, even if they did not contain much additional meat, really described a sharp restructuring of the mission and curriculum of these colleges.

SINCE OUR initial posting [at the City Colleges of Chicago Reinvention: The Truth blog], we have been arguing that in line with the professed goals of the Obama administration, the CCC administration was getting ready to transform a significant part of the CCC into a job-training, vocational-schooling direction.

We emphasized that the most important (by far) Reinvention goal was the first one, which emphasized the generation of degrees with economic value. What we did not expect was that most of the system would be transformed in this direction.

Let's hear Emanuel again:

Cities like Miami and Louisville have tried something similar--but in a single industry, with a single school. Miami matched a community college to train students in the healthcare sciences. Louisville has linked a community college with UPS to be a leader in logistics.

But this is Chicago. We need something bigger, more ambitious, and more comprehensive, something to match the diversity and depth of our economy, which is one of our strengths.

So tonight, I am announcing that we will tailor six of our community colleges to train students in a specific sector, where we know we can dominate the future.

In our posting titled "Reinvention: Local case of the national scheme to degrade community colleges," we had connected the Reinvention to Obama's administration plan to transform community colleges into workforce development institutions to faithfully serve the needs of corporations, as part of his political agenda to convince the public that he was addressing the abysmal unemployment rate. As in tandem, Emanuel announces his vocationalization of the CCC in December, and a month later, in his State of the Union address, this is what Obama had to say:

Join me in a national commitment to train 2 million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, and Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers--places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing.

Emanuel's offer of the CCC to the corporations and businesses was made very attractive:

In the same way that you help Booth and Kellogg [business schools at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University] prepare their graduates for careers in management and finance, we need you to partner with our community colleges--so that their curriculums meet the needs of the sectors that power the Chicago economy.

I'm not talking about hiring one person or even a partnership. It's more than that. This is about ensuring that the curriculum taught at community colleges provides the skills you need at your place of employment.

By making a diploma from our community colleges into a ticket to the workforce, we will make them a first option for job training and not a last resort.

I do not expect you to do this alone. Our community college leaders will be right there with you. And whatever you invest in our schools, you will get back many times over in the skills of your employees and your ability to grow.

Therefore it will be the business barons' employees who will be in charge of rewriting the curriculum at the CCC.

Emanuel minces no words in making it clear that he is talking about a two-tier higher education system. One for the children of the elite, plus a minority of working class students made up of those lucky enough to sneak in, who will be able to secure a bachelor's degree or more. Then there is the rest of our children, who will be led down a cattle chute into the lower rungs of the work universe. Again, we let Emanuel speak:

Now don't get me wrong, Chicago and the state of Illinois have great institutions of higher learning. We know them: Northwestern, University of Chicago, University of Illinois, DePaul, Columbia College, Loyola, Roosevelt, UIC.

We have two of the top five business schools in the country in Booth and Kellogg. We have great law schools. In technology we have IIT [Illinois Institute of Technology], Fermi, Argonne labs and U of I.

Chicago is also the destination of choice for graduates from the Big Ten States, be they from Madison, Columbus, Ann Arbor, Iowa City, East Lansing, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Indianapolis, or South Bend.

What we have overlooked in the development of our workforce is the preparation of our own children. We have not developed the educational system that helps our economy grow.

The gloomy significance of this transformation was well spelled out by a participant of a discussion regarding this matter at The Harold Lounge (Harold Washington College's faculty discussion webpage):

So, how will all of this effect our students? Well, the mayor and the chancellor are basically saying that our students are not capable of pursuing higher education, and should be satisfied with a vocational career. At least that way, they will be contributing members of society. This denigrates our students to the nth degree. Instead of providing access to higher education, which is the foundation and mission of community colleges, we will be limiting our students to low-level jobs, with little to no opportunity for career growth. This is social injustice at its finest.

I'm not against partnering with businesses to provide smooth transitions into careers for our students. I'm not against creating more vocational paths for our students. What I am against is the City Colleges of Chicago telling the students of Chicago that they can achieve no higher than that, that they should settle, that they shouldn't dream big, that they don't need to be educated, but trained with a specific set of skills--skills that limit their opportunities for career advancement or career change.

THIS IS not the first time that the mayor uses the argument of a skills mismatch between inadequate level of skills of unemployed workers and an alleged 100,000 skilled-job vacancies in Illinois that go unfilled despite the high unemployment rate. This same argument is raised nationally by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Obama administration, but with a claim of more than half a million unfilled skilled job vacancies at the national level.

Bear in mind that this argument does not explain away the high unemployment numbers. Even if the 500,000 figure is accurate, this is way short of the over 13 million people looking for jobs, which excludes those who, demoralized, have given up searching for work. These figures come from surveys of manufacturers and other employers. However, there is controversy around the accuracy of this claim.

A 2005 report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) says that "Employers do complain about the skills of young worker and high-school-educated workers, but it is unclear whether they are dissatisfied mainly with workers' cognitive skills or rather with their effort and attitude." Furthermore, last September, Heidi Shierholz reported in the EPI's blog that a comparison of unemployment rates across all skill sectors between 2007 and 2011 showed that "all education categories have seen their unemployment rates roughly double over the last four years." She added:

This across-the-board deterioration in the demand for workers runs directly counter to the notion that there has been some transformation of the workplace over the last four years that has left millions of workers inadequately prepared for the currently available jobs.

John Schmitt, senior economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, writes that:

If there really is a shortage of skilled workers, though, we'd expect to see skilled workers' wages rising.

But workers with some college (including those with associates degrees) or a bachelor's degree or even a master's degree suffered average real wage declines even steeper than those of high school graduates.

So if we have a shortage of skilled workers, it is a peculiar one.

Finally, renowned business journalist Doug Henwood and Philippa Dunne, co-editor of the The Liscio Report on the Economy, debunked the analysis of Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota, who claimed that the unemployment vs. vacancy rates data indicated a significant jobs skills mismatch, by using vacancy rates data extending back to the 1960s and showing that this is not the case.

So...if we do not have that scary a mismatch between unfilled skilled jobs and the number of unemployed, what really happens is that, as Heidi Shierholz says, "The U.S. doesn't lack the right workers, it lacks work."

Then, what is all this conversion of the CCC into vocational schools about?

IT IS about the money--about shifting the economic burden of training workers from businesses to students and taxpayers.

As MSNBC Senior Producer John Schoen explains, "[T]here's less agreement on where the money will come from to train those jobless workers. Nobody, it seems, wants to pick up the tab." Then he goes on to quote Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce:

The commitment between employer and employee has gone down. And (employers) don't want to take five years to get you ready. They want you ready to start working--and learning--the day you walk in the door. But they don't want to do qualifying training.

Businesses and corporations have been plundering us for several decades now. First, they began cutting our wages and benefits, then they began moving production from the North of the U.S. to the South. That was not enough. They proceeded with a major campaign to outsource production from the U.S. to other low-wage countries. Simultaneously, they went, with the complicity of politicians, to privatize public services.

These last two trends continue to advance to this day. But this is still not enough. Despite having their tax payments drastically reduced over the past three decades--to the extent that plenty of major corporations pay no taxes--now they want to transfer the cost of training their own workers to the students and to the tax-paying working class.

Make no mistake, when the Obama administration, business economists and the likes of Emanuel talk about the new trend of onshoring or insourcing jobs, they are talking about the U.S. becoming the cheap labor center of the advanced economies. The jobs that are currently being onshored are jobs coming at the expense of Canadian workers. Yes, manufacturing is being outsourced from Canada into the U.S., but only because our average wages have become so pitiful over the past four decades. The dynamics are brilliantly described by Doug Henwood:

American workers are very productive, but they earn a lot less. Caterpillar claims that its workers in Illinois cost the firm less than half as much as their comrades in Ontario. Over the last decade, unit labor costs--wages and benefits paid per dollar of output--have fallen by 13 percent in the U.S. They rose by 2 percent in Germany, 15 percent in Korea, and 18 percent in Canada. When you factor in transportation and other costs, U.S. workers in some sectors are starting to become competitive with China, where wages have been rising sharply for years and workers have developed a habit of striking and ransacking the boss's office.

The trend towards bringing factory work back to the U.S. even has a name: onshoring. A revival of manufacturing would be good in many ways, but one based largely on low wages and high levels of exploitation is not something to cheer.

So many of the jobs for which Emanuel wants young people to train are meant to be jobs with much lower wages and benefits than they would have been in the past. Jobs that some other day may be outsourced again, leaving millions of workers with a limited number of skills, looking again from outside the window.

During his ECC speech, Emanuel conflated the role of community colleges after World War II with what he is proposing as his new scheme.

Community colleges were the catapult for the World War II generation coming home from the battlefield, the generation of Americans who became the most productive and economically expansive in American history. They can serve that same function in the 21st century.

Tonight, we charge our community colleges with a new mission: to train the workforce of today for the jobs of tomorrow; to give our students the ability to achieve a middle class standard of living; to provide our companies with the skilled workers they need.

This is misleading at the least, dishonest at its worst. After the Second World War, community colleges, under a President Harry Truman directive, became the democratizing bridges for working class students to secure bachelors degrees and join the ranks of the many teachers, engineers, etc. required to build the U.S. economy through the longest economic boom this country has ever had. Under Emanuel's plan, that bridge is destroyed, and a diverging road is being built into a vocational training cul-de-sac.

In this highly racially segregated city, the neighborhoods where the Olive-Harvey and Daley Colleges reside are overwhelmingly African American and Latino, respectively. The turning of these two colleges into strictly vocational schools severs the path for these students to go on to obtain a bachelor's degree or a profession. Even if not consciously intended, the outcome will be a racist tracking of Black and Latino young men and women away from a genuine higher education degree.

For the sake of our community colleges, for the sake of our children and our communities, it is time to stop Emanuel in his tracks.

First published at City Colleges of Chicago Reinvention: The Truth.

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