This July, in reaction to comments made by President Obama in May, the Center for American Progress (CAP) convened a panel to discuss postsecondary educational attainment entitled “Working Learners: Educating Our Entire Workforce in the 21st Century.” Much like the webpage describing the event, the majority of the panelists framed their suggestions in terms of what ought to exist, but described very few concrete ideas for how this ideal hypothetical state could be created.
In his preliminary remarks, Rep. Jon Tierney (D-MA) set the agenda for the panel. “What is recognized here, and I think is also understood by all of today’s panelists…is that whenever a worker is out of work, they deserve to get assistance and job training and whatever education is necessary so that they can secure a job,” he said. Moreover, Rep. Tierney argued, there were requirements concerning the sort of job which this education could prepare workers for. “Whatever employment they get has to be sustainable for their family, for the community and for them.”
Naturally, given the context of President Obama’s health plan, Rep. Tierney used the context of the discussion to mention the necessity of the President’s plan being implemented. “When you’re out of a job, you are out of a job. You still need support to sustain your family, you need health care,” Rep. Tierney said. “If you’re out of work, you don’t deserve less unemployment aid and less health care.”
As for constructive suggestions, Rep. Tierney argued that the situation required tactics akin to those of a “SWAT team” and decried the compromises inherent in the legislative process. “Too many compromises have to be made, too many interests are involved,” Rep. Tierney said. “We need a system that looks and says that whether you’re an at-risk youth or an adult who needs basic adult services, you also need a system in place for you.”
He did not elaborate on what “basic adult services” were.
More revealing still was the speech given by Jane Oates, the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training in the U.S. Department of Labor. Oates began her speech with a tribute to Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and the similarities between Senator Kennedy and President Obama. “It’s hard for me to imagine having a better boss than Ted Kennedy, so I’ll never try,” Oates said. “[President] Obama really exemplifies everything that Senator Kennedy has been fighting for his entire political career.”
Oates then began a discussion of her priorities as a member of the Department of Labor. “Good jobs for all is the slogan of the Department of Labor,” Oates said. “[Secretary Hilda Solis] really believes that, except she’s really pushing us to emphasize the word ‘all.’” Oates had earlier praised Solis as “an incredible example of what politics is and who it attracts.”
One element of the “commitment” which Oates praised on Solis’s part was a desire to create incentives for students to attend community colleges, rather than four-year institutions. “Too many folks are making the choice to put themselves into debt by going to higher priced for-profit schools,” Oates said. “If community colleges are really to compete with for-profit schools…they’ve got to have greater flexibility to get the equipment they need to respond to the needs of business.”
Another element of the administration’s philosophy which Oates cited was hostility toward the division of labor. “Another responsibility that we have is that we don’t allow the system to decide who is a better candidate for what… One criticism is that many people are still thinking ‘work first,’” Oates said.
Louis Soares, whose paper on “Working Learners” was discussed in the second half of the presentation, also eschewed technical suggestions for reform. “Engaging working learners is complex,” Soares said.
Mytheos Holt is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.