Point of View

The problem of tying education to jobs

October 13, 2012 

The recently created UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions has been tasked in part with more closely aligning university activities with business needs. While in these days of high unemployment that may sound like a sensible move, scholarship on the political economy suggests that such a shift, if done incorrectly, could entail long-term costs that far outweigh any short-term benefits.

Let me explain.

A key challenge for businesses is solving the “coordination problems” they face in producing and selling goods and services. In short, how does a business know it will have all the “inputs” it needs in the years to come?

Take, for example, the poultry industry, one of our state’s largest. It requires a steady stream of chickens. But it also takes farmers who know how to raise them, agricultural engineers who ensure a more efficient system, immunologists who help prevent disease and environmental experts to minimize the footprint.

The high-tech industries that populate Research Triangle Park require risk analysts, chemists and computer engineers, among many others. Those people in turn rely on a far-reaching web of other companies that provide them with intermediate goods and services that are then turned into a final product that GlaxoSmithKline or Lenovo sells.

In short, businesses need to know that they will have access to the supply of inputs they need, be they chickens, engineers or linguists, and when they need them, but businesses can’t “produce” all of those inputs themselves. They rely on others to provide at least some of the goods and services they need to produce their own good or service.

A university’s most visible role is to produce high-skilled workers. And therein lies the challenge: The businesses that employ our students do not control the content of their employees’ education. So should that change?

If we compare the U.S. economy with other major capitalist economies, such as Germany or Sweden, we see stark differences in the link between education and the economy. Put simply, many European economies are characterized by higher degrees of coordination among the stakeholders than our economy is. This manifests itself in many ways, including the larger role that labor unions play in companies’ decision-making.

It also shows up in the educational system, where the focus often is on training people from an early age for a specific career. The very good public education systems ensure that salespeople, artists, mechanics, managers, engineers and secretaries are well-trained in the specific set of skills required in their specific jobs.

In the U.S., the educational system has always given at least a nod to a broader education. We require students to take courses in fields very different from their own: engineering and design students sit alongside business and French majors in my international political economy and European politics classes. While we rightly provide outstanding technical training, we also strive to produce students with a more generalized set of skills, which employers can hone through on-the-job experience.

The implications of those different educational systems – specificity versus creativity – are substantial. The well-known social safety nets of Europe exist in part because workers’ training leaves them less mobile across jobs. Workers agree to a specific training that limits mobility in exchange for greater support when the specific job for which they are qualified isn’t available. The more general education of American students, on the other hand, allows them to apply their skills in a broader number of jobs, making them more mobile.

On a broader scale, the specific expertise of European workers makes their economies good at incremental improvements to existing technology, while the U.S. tends to generate greater creativity and innovation as critical thinkers move from job to job and across fields.

That is why Steve Jobs famously supported the marriage of high tech and the humanities: a combined education that stresses technical training with a liberal arts education is a true comparative advantage.

Aligning our universities with the needs of industry sounds good and I applaud UNC system President Tom Ross for starting the conversation. But if producing “what business needs” means shifting from a broad education to a narrow training, we risk shifting our economy away from one that is driven by creativity and radical innovation. We may produce graduates that today’s businesses need, but we may stop producing the graduates that tomorrow’s businesses need. If we do that, we will stop producing tomorrow’s businesses.

In this jobs-focused time, we surely want to avoid that strategy.

Mark Nance is an assistant professor of political science in N.C. State University’s School of Public and International Affairs.

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