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Will a $25 billion wall keep Americans working?


President Donald Trump wants to build a wall between Mexico and the United States projected to cost $25 billion to stem illegal immigration and protect American-born workers. The wall is the No. 1 priority on the White House immigration principles released Sunday night.

Would that be money well spent?

The White House press is reporting neither party is likely to endorse that level of funding for a wall to stem illegal immigration. I will leave that debate aside to focus on a question more relevant to an education blog: If the goal is the protection of American workers, could we better spend that $25 billion elsewhere, such as on training and education?

I attended a forum last week on the future of work sponsored by the Atlantic magazine. One of the most interesting comments came from a journalist who delved into the decision by Carrier Corp. to phase out 1,400 low- to midgrade manufacturing jobs at its Indianapolis production facilities and move them to Mexico for an expected annual savings of $65 million.

The company's plan drew heavy press coverage because Trump intervened and said his negotiations with Carrier saved many of the jobs.  However, layoffs continue; Carrier is in the process of eliminating 632 positions this year.

Journalist Joan Lynch of Working Nation and her team spent time with Carrier workers in the aftermath of the layoff news. Here is what she told the audience at the Atlantic forum about the rapid rate of change and the adaptability required of older workers hoping to survive in the new economy:

We spent a lot of time with the Carrier workers, with folks in City Hall, with the unions and with the organizations that were brought in to bring new programs to re-skill some of these folks. And one of the things I found to be the most interesting is that there are jobs in Indianapolis. There are good jobs in Indianapolis.

With some retraining, these folks could move directly into them. But what was disturbing to us is that a large majority of people that we talked to were more comfortable with the idea of being unemployed than being retrained.

And as we dug into that -- because that is kind of jaw dropping  -- what they were really saying is the words 'education,' 'training,' 'technology,' 'skills' - they hear 'coding' all the time when you have to learn something new -- that scared them to the point where they just said, 'I can't do it. I am not ready for that.'

Lynch's recommendation was recasting the retraining process as enjoyable rather than intimidating.

If we change the dialogue and we change the story, we can say things like, 'Do you like to play video games?' So many of the jobs of the future have changed and are technological in a fun way and we have been able, through our work on the ground, to get a lot of people into this idea that, 'Wow, my community college offers that and I didn't know it would be fun and interesting and it wouldn't be like my 12th grade biology class.'

As someone with friends and family members facing re-education in fast-changing professions, many contend they're not interested in starting over. They are choosing retirement or buyouts because they don't want to go back to the classroom at age 55. Is that unreasonable?

Lynch and other speakers agreed that industry and educational institutions such as community colleges must collaborate. "Just because you  have a degree doesn't mean you won't need a credential down the line. I do believe education is not a ladder any more; it is a lattice," she said.

According to Lynch, community colleges and businesses have to hold clear conversations about the available jobs in the area and how a school can best prepare students for them. "In general, that collaboration has to lay out that, 'Here are the credentials that are going to be helpful for you in this particular field,' instead of the more general, 'Take these five classes and you'll be good for this field.' It doesn't work that way any more," she said.

While there's a great deal of discussion in education today about credentials, there's not a lot of research on value or longtime benefits. Workers have to invest time and money into earning such credentials.  Credentials in high-need areas --  IT, construction, manufacturing and health care -- appear to pay off, but how about other industries?

What we don't know:

•Does the value of industry-recognized credentials vary across industries and  local labor markets?

•Should colleges design credential programs around a specific employer's needs? What if that employer decides to relocate to Mexico? In that instance, haven't students paid to learn job skills no longer in demand in their community? Isn't that the historic argument for the broad-based education approach embraced by four-year colleges?

•Does getting a credential compensate for a lack of education and work experience?

•Do students who did poorly in high school but eventually earn a credential fare well in the job market? Or, are there vital soft skills that have to be present -- persistence, work ethic, punctuality -- to undergird any credential? An employer made the comment to me that his experience showed young people who blew off high school don't then become stellar workers because they earned a credential. "The same deficits that hurt them in high school -- not showing up, not following through, not asking questions -- hurt them on the job," the employer told me.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.