September – October 2019 Commentary

As more employers offer advanced training for their employees, often with no underlying agreement that they must stay with the company for a certain period of time, colleges and universities have an opportunity to provide advanced technical and vocational education away from their campuses.
Illustration by James Yang

Education – Classrooms in the Workplace

As more employers offer advanced training for their employees, often with no underlying agreement that they must stay with the company for a certain period of time, colleges and universities have an opportunity to provide advanced technical and vocational education away from their campuses.

Given technical fields are changing rapidly, employers like General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Amazon, Microsoft, and many others are offering classes at the workplace to better control pricing, improve morale, and avoid downtime from traffic congestion. Amazon, for example, plans to spend $700 million on “workplace universities,” where employees can earn a certificate or a degree in a high-demand field such as machine learning, AI, robotics, and even drone operations.

While some corporations will finance the entire operation as a way to better retain talented workers and attract top-notch recruits, other businesses will need assistance offering on-site vocational and degree training. That’s where higher education comes in. Colleges and universities either can embrace the workplace education trend, or risk being shut out of what is potentially a lucrative market.

The path toward a college degree is often a rite of passage from adolescence to the professional world. But with parents and their children paying more and more for a university degree, and often taking out thousands of dollars in loans to pay for it, convincing a graduate to return to campus and take on more debt isn’t an appealing prospect.

By offering to bring educators and curriculum to a workplace, colleges and universities will find they don’t need to build more classrooms at a main or a satellite campus; employees will be more apt to participate, knowing the cost will be totally or partially covered by their company; and taxpayers and donors will be less burdened by expensive expansion projects.

In other words, higher education operators can see the trend as a glass that’s either half full or half empty. As any economist knows, grabbing revenue from the proverbial shrinking pie and adjusting to a new reality is better than being shut out of a marketplace. Faced with lower birth rates from the Great Recession that will begin to be felt in the middle of the next decade, colleges and universities must do everything they can to prepare for falling enrollment numbers. 

While the learning-at-the-workplace model won’t change higher education overnight, employers clearly have a vested interest in closing the skills gap as quickly as possible. In turn, if a company starts offering on-site classes to its workers, a competing business leader can either offer the same programs or take a chance that their workers won’t be enticed to quit and join a more progressive employer.

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. — Henry Ford, Founder, Ford Motor Co.

Because businesses are at the front lines of transformational technology, they’re better prepared to predict and provide for rapidly changing market conditions than federal or state job-training programs that can be slow-moving and, at times, out of touch with reality. What’s more, employees who have a wider range of skill sets can find work in another part of the company if their position or department is eliminated.

Defense – Brain Centers

The U.S. Department of Defense should re-evaluate its decision to open a multimillion-dollar research and innovation center in Austin, Texas. Known as the Army Futures Command, the facility that opened in early 2018 was the result of a massive restructuring program designed to accelerate R&D spending on new technologies for the military.

The problem is that while Austin is a recognized technology center — major tech players with operations there include IBM, Apple, 3M, and Cisco Systems — the region produces few whole systems such as tanks or Humvees. As a result, the Army Futures Command is far behind in working with defense contractors, especially small businesses, and meeting its hiring goal of adding 500 workers (about 200 positions have been filled).

According to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the Futures Command center must do a better job of identifying, managing, and tracking its small-business programs. In fact, the report states the Army may be hurting small defense contractors more than it’s helping them.

What’s more, in taking designs from the lab and integrating them into whole components or vehicles, military and civilian defense personnel from Austin find they often must travel to regions that have established defense industry sectors. While the center may have looked good in concept, and was brought to Austin in large part due to political pressure, the facility’s leadership didn’t take into account the full picture. As a result, the adoption of new and emerging technologies actually has been delayed.

Energy – Replace Line 5

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have made no secret of their desire to shut down Line 5, which runs below the Straits of Mackinac. The Enbridge-owned twin pipelines, while showing their age, provide vital oil and natural gas to the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan. The problem with the plan to shut Line 5 down is that Whitmer and Nessel haven’t provided any ideas for a more suitable and green way to deliver the needed fuel.

If the pipelines were shut down, oil and natural gas would have to be loaded onto thousands of rail cars and trucks — the latter of which produce large amounts of air pollution. In addition, putting more large trucks on our roads and bridges will generate more traffic and contribute to the aging of our infrastructure (Whitmer has yet to provide a politically acceptable plan to fix the roads).

While Enbridge is working on a $500-million plan to replace the pipelines below the Straits of Mackinac, a process that will take five years, Whitmer and Nessel — along with their environmental campaign donors — are trying to slow or shut down the pipelines via the Ingham County Circuit Court. Even union leaders, long proponents of Democrat politicians, have come out against shutting down Line 5.

Rather than pander to a small base of green constituents, Whitmer and Nessel should recognize the plan Enbridge has for replacing Line 5 is the best option for continuing to make Michigan a competitive environment for businesses and residents. The Line 5 project not only protects our water, it also boosts our energy-efficiency.

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