TCS Daily

Labor and Management Finding Online Learning to Their Liking

By James K. Glassman - August 13, 2001 12:00 AM

President George W. Bush and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney disagree on many things. But in late June they found some common ground at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.

At the Summit on the 21st Century Workforce hosted by the Department of Labor, both men spoke out for better education and training to help workers keep up with rapidly changing technologies and markets.

"Federal policy must keep pace with changes of our workforce," President Bush declared. Echoed Sweeney, "We must step up significantly both our public and private investment in lifelong education and training for American workers."

Indeed, the workplace today is changing at a dizzying pace compared to the steady rollout in past decades. As Communications Workers of America President Mort Bahr noted about the telecommunications industry in an interview with Tech Central Station, "In the monopoly days, the Bell laboratories did not introduce the next generation of technology until they bled every last dollar out of the marketplace because there was nobody else who was going to do it." That meant training could take place slowly.

But competition both at home and abroad has changed that in every field. As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told the hundreds of labor, business, educational and government leaders at the summit, the pace of change is likely only to increase. "The business of tomorrow will be much more global than the business of today," he noted. Why? Because "the tools allow it."

It is in preparing Americans to handle those new tools that there is a problem. "America needs a wake up call about its workforce," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao warned. For there is, she says, a "growing skills gap."

Traditional manufacturing jobs are being exported, and that has contributed to a widening earnings gap between high school and college graduates from 38 percent in 1979 to over 70 percent today.

As Bahr told us, with competition in his industry, "the world around us changed. No longer could a high school graduate go to the nearest telephone office and get a reasonably good-paying job."

Indeed, even a professional degree from a college is no job guarantee. Only one of two college graduates with professional credentials will ever work in the field for which they were trained. Only about one in five jobs require college professional training, and they are only expected to grow about 1 percent in the next five years. Meanwhile, 30 percent of high school graduates in the United States go on to graduate from college compared with about half that rate in other industrialized countries.

The real skills gap is in the technical professions. It is in the skills of machinists, electricians, plumbers, healthcare workers, repair people and, of course, computer programmers. But today, as Bahr, Sweeney and other labor leaders realize, in such skilled trades and professions you can't expect to be trained once and have it last a lifetime. As Secretary Chao noted, the average 32-year-old today has changed jobs around nine times.

So, in this regard, whatever competence one learns, it won't last a lifetime. People need to continue their educations well after they go to work. But how do they do that while they are working?

In the past, enrolling in night classes or taking time off from jobs so they could attend a community college or university was the only way for many to raise their skills. It would often take years of effort to gradually accomplish that task.

Today, unions such as the CWA have formed alliances with businesses, such as AT&T, whose workers they represent, to provide opportunities for retraining workers as jobs go out of date. And those workers and others not covered by such agreements have a technology today that provides an alternative to classroom instruction - the Internet.

Such "distance learning," as it is called, has boomed in recent years.

Where a third of two- and four-year higher education institutions provided courses off-campus in 1995, 44% did by 1998. The number of courses offered for credit doubled, to nearly 50,000, as did the number of students enrolled in them, to 1.6 million. Virtual universities have sprung up, such as the Western Governors University, United States Open University and Kentucky Commonwealth University. Private, for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix, with a presence in more than 40 states, have moved heavily into online education. Many public universities are forming partnerships with private businesses and web companies to provide courses over the Internet, often creating for-profit offshoots to do so.

Finally, many businesses, including high-tech giants Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco Systems and Novell, are providing non-traditional training and certification for workers in their areas. An estimated 2.4 million received such certification last year.

The students taking these courses often are in their 30s and 40s, honing new skills while seeking everything from associate's degrees to doctorates. Yet they continue to struggle in an educational framework that is centered on physical sites as the basis for education rather than student needs.

Federal rules governing higher education, for example, provide financial aid only to students who attend an institution that holds at least half of its classes in old-fashioned classrooms. Further, they must take 12 hours of classes weekly and have 30 weeks worth of classes a year to be considered full-time and eligible for aid.

These rules were developed to protect against the abuse and fraud of old back-of-the-matchbook correspondence schools. Such places often would charge high rates to provide a book, a few materials and little real instruction. Students were gypped of an education, while taxpayers were ripped off to pick up the bills. But in a world where the Internet can provide access to an honest education any time, anywhere, they make little sense.

As Lorna Palmer Noone of the University of Phoenix, one of the largest online educators, sagely pointed out to the Web-Based Education Commission last year, "If we are to be required to assess educational quality and learning by virtue of how long a student sits in a seat, we have focused on the wrong end of the student."

It also can keep an education out of reach for many people, widening the skills gap for millions of Americans.

Congress began grappling with that reality a few years ago, authorizing the Department of Education to grant some schools exemptions from those requirements in a demonstration project. The results indicate it's time to stop experimenting and start extending those exemptions to all accredited institutions.

In addition, those pursuing certification through reputable business courses also may require some modest support. Those intense, short courses don't qualify for financial aid now, even though they may cost as much and teach a whole lot more than a year of full time courses at a community college. Accreditation and standards for accepting credits for degree programs need to be harmonized between the states, so students can go anywhere online to get the education they need. And tax laws may need altering to provide business incentives to help more workers retrain.

By working together, as they started to do at June's workforce summit, business, labor, educators and government can overcome these obstacles and larger ones.

The tool exists to bridge Secretary Chao's "skills gap." It's called distance learning. The question is whether those who need it most will be allowed to make full use of it.


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