What's The Difference Between Higher Education And Education For Hire?

Caterpillar is funding a class in Milwaukee to train potential scabs for a likely strike. The union is asking the college to end it, but the institution doesn't want to give up the revenue—or the relationship.

Companies investing directly in education and creating local paths to employment can have huge benefits for a community. But there's also the danger of companies using education as a political tool. Such is the case right now in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Area Technical College, a public community college, recently started the spring session of a training program for welders. This isn't just any class: It's sponsored by Caterpillar, the giant equipment manufacturer, which created some of the training materials. The company is enrolling nonunion management and support employees in the welding program to learn how to do the jobs of skilled, unionized workers who have contract negotiations coming up next month, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported last week. And the local steelworkers union is now asking the college to stop the training program.

Caterpillar is simply engaging in "workforce contingency training" as it has done since the mid-2000s, company spokesperson Rusty Bunn tells Fast Company. "That's part of any labor contract cycle. It's business continuity planning. Whether there's a natural disaster or any other kind of disruption, we want to be ready at all times to continue to make products." Even during a strike.

The Steelworkers see the training class as an intimidation tactic. "Please don't allow MATC to be used as a pawn in Caterpillar's union-busting games," read their letter to the college's board of directors and President Michael Burke.

For its part, the college says it must honor its contract with Caterpillar. "Part of MATC's mission is being responsive to the needs of businesses in our district, and this contract is an example of that," college spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl told the AP. MATC touts its many industry connections on its website, including that "some programs partner directly with companies to supply employees." This is supposed to be part of the "practical" value of an MATC degree. But in order for the college to be practical, does it have to teach anything a private corporation tells it to?

Controversies involving unions and public education are not new to Wisconsin, recent site of a failed recall campaign against Governor Scott Walker following months of street protests over his restrictions of collective bargaining for public employees, including teachers. He's specifically targeted the budgets of the states' technical colleges, cutting them 30 percent over the last few years and causing many programs to be shut down.

It's possible to draw an unusually straight line here between a decline in support for public colleges and universities, driving them to turn to the private sector for support, and a blow to the deeper values of education. Historically, the American higher education landscape has nurtured the human capital for the world's most innovative and productive economy. It's been overwhelmingly public, intellectually independent, and above all, diverse. Responding to the needs of businesses has always been part of a college's mission. So has critical thought and open political debate over issues such as workers' rights.

But without taxpayer support for an independent public system, we end up with little more than training programs created and maintained by and for the benefit of existing private industry. A sponsored college is going to be a censored college. That's a loss to the nation's future, whether or not you side with the steelworkers in Milwaukee.

[Image: Flickr user Rohit Rath]

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  • Eugene

    There is no question that the union workers will have more leverage if colleges cease offering useful training altogether, so why not do that?  This article is a ridiculous piece of nonsense.  The only "censorship" would occur if MATC refused to offer unemployed welders an opportunity to learn a skill, on the sole grounds that it might benefit the company more than the union.  Workers rights do indeed include the right to strike, but the company may lawfully hire workers and attempt to continue to operate, and it is perfectly legitimate for MATC to serve the individuals in the community who voluntarily choose to receive this training.  

  • Noel Radomski

    I respectfully disagree with your blog. I serve on the District Board of the other MATC (Madison Area Technical College) and as the Board Secretary one of my duties is to sign contracts between our college and businesses/nonprofits/govt. The technical colleges make decisions based on faculty availability, costs, revenues, and site availability.  

    Like UW-Madison, where I work (I enjoyed last week's presentation you delivered!), the technical colleges have their governance system which we follow before signing contracts. Most of the contracts cover the costs of the course(s): faculty, materials, and space. Has Caterpillar done anything illegal?  If not, what legal grounds do public colleges have to say no to offering courses for employees?

    Should all colleges and universities, public/private/nonprofit, not offer courses to any Caterpillar employees (striking, scabs, or management?)?  Unlike 4-year universities, our mission is to serve the employees, unemployed, and underemployed at our 10 locations in 11 counties. 

    Thank you for you provocative ideas...we need more!

    Noel Radomski

  • Matt Karnes

    Ms. Kamenetz claims that american higer education has "historically...been overwhelmingly public, intellectually independent, and above all, diverse."  This is not true. 
    -It was not overwhelmingly public until the middle of the 20th century.  Most schools were private.  Even in the very liberal and pro-public education San Francisco Bay Area the public four years colleges are outnumbered by the private 4 year colleges.-Most schools were founded, funded, and governed by religious institutions, so there goes the intellectually independence" claimed by the author.  - The student bodies of the schools were not diverse until late in the 20th century.  Princeton didn't admit women until 1969.  West Point didn't admeit women until 1976.   Harvard did not admit women until 1973.  Blacks were not admitted to Princton until the 1946.  The number of Jews admitted into Harvard and Princeton was capped until the 1970s.  The very existence of Historically Black Colleges and Universities is an example of the non-diversty in american higher education.  And that is only sex and race diversity.  As for intellectual diversity, I think it is even more rare.  Question:  What percentage of college instructors think of themselves as liberals?  What percenage think of themselves as conservatives? According to Howard Kurtz, writingin the Washington Post in 2005 the percentages are 72% and 15%, respectively.  Hardly diverse, and not reflective of the American population.

    When Ms. Kamenetz, or any reporter states something as contrafactual as the claim that american higer education has "historically...been overwhelmingly public, intellectually independent, and above all, diverse" I am forced to view everything she has written with great skepticism.

  • Anya Kamenetz

    "Overwhelmingly public" refers to the majority of enrollment since the advent of the land-grant colleges in the 19th century. 
    "Diverse" refers to the number of different models for higher ed in the US: for-profit, nonprofit private, and public.