Accessing OJT

For my money, the economic problem this country has always been slowest to address or even much talk about is how to get people onto a sustainable career ladder. U.S. businesses simply won’t invest in training their employees any more. Government training programs mostly suck, and the ones that don’t are chronically underfunded. Educational credentials are more expensive and less effective than ever in getting that critical first “real job.” And when the economy goes south, all these systemic problems turn especially toxic, and a whole generation is in danger of being damaged if not left adrift.

In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey addresses all of these problems and discusses a new institution–the skills training “boot camp”–illustrates what’s wrong with the old system and how it might be improved.

Kevin’s explanation of the current crisis is succinct and painfully accurate:

The resulting “no skills, no job; no job, no skills” dilemma for students only grew worse after the 2008 financial calamity. Every year, hundreds of thousands of undergraduates emerge from garden-variety colleges and universities lacking the selective admissions policies that send signals of cognitive ability and elite acculturation to the job market. In past recessions, college grads eventually found their way into the good parts of the labor market, albeit with some permanent scars to their long-term earnings potential. But this was the worst recession in living memory, and for many it came with new and unwanted baggage: debt. As late as the 1990s, most undergraduates finished college debt free. Now, nearly 70 percent leave owing close to $30,000 per year. For a substantial minority, the numbers are much worse.

Colleges, as it happens, have a solution: even more college, at a steep, debt-financed price. Media attention to the huge amounts of outstanding student loan debt often glosses over the fact that graduate school borrowing makes up a substantial chunk of the $1.2 trillion outstanding balance. From 2008 to 2012, the median combined undergraduate and graduate debt of people graduating with master’s degrees jumped from $44,000 to $57,600.

Universities see master’s degree programs as largely unregulated cash cows that help shore up their bottom line. Selective institutions monetize their brand names by offering expensive one-year “professional” or “executive” master’s degrees with lax admissions criteria that don’t have to be publicly disclosed. Enrolled students can defer paying off their undergraduate loans. This amounts to doubling down on the risky proposition that, armed only with academic credentials, they can break into the job market with enough success to pay even bigger loans back. Rising loan default rates suggest that many of them have been wrong.

I won’t go into Kevin’s detailed discussion of skills “boot camps.” The basic idea is a way to give people the job-specific training companies no longer offer and colleges never did, and also a way to demonstrate their aptitude and work ethics. It’s sort of like pre-employment OJT. “Boot camps” have quickly caught on in a few high-demand fields, but are spreading to others. The most important thing about them, though, may simply be their demonstration of what people pursuing and offering entry-level jobs actually appear to want and need. Given what we spend publicly and privately on career preparation resources that just don’t work, that’s a pretty big deal.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.