Companies investing directly in education and creating local paths to employment can have huge benefits for a community. But there's also the danger of companies using education as a political tool. Such is the case right now in Milwaukee.
The Milwaukee Area Technical College, a public community college, recently started the spring session of a training program for welders. This isn't just any class: It's sponsored by Caterpillar, the giant equipment manufacturer, which created some of the training materials. The company is enrolling nonunion management and support employees in the welding program to learn how to do the jobs of skilled, unionized workers who have contract negotiations coming up next month, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported last week. And the local steelworkers union is now asking the college to stop the training program.
Caterpillar is simply engaging in "workforce contingency training" as it has done since the mid-2000s, company spokesperson Rusty Bunn tells Fast Company. "That's part of any labor contract cycle. It's business continuity planning. Whether there's a natural disaster or any other kind of disruption, we want to be ready at all times to continue to make products." Even during a strike.
The Steelworkers see the training class as an intimidation tactic. "Please don't allow MATC to be used as a pawn in Caterpillar's union-busting games," read their letter to the college's board of directors and President Michael Burke.
For its part, the college says it must honor its contract with Caterpillar. "Part of MATC's mission is being responsive to the needs of businesses in our district, and this contract is an example of that," college spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl told the AP. MATC touts its many industry connections on its website, including that "some programs partner directly with companies to supply employees." This is supposed to be part of the "practical" value of an MATC degree. But in order for the college to be practical, does it have to teach anything a private corporation tells it to?
Controversies involving unions and public education are not new to Wisconsin, recent site of a failed recall campaign against Governor Scott Walker following months of street protests over his restrictions of collective bargaining for public employees, including teachers. He's specifically targeted the budgets of the states' technical colleges, cutting them 30 percent over the last few years and causing many programs to be shut down.
It's possible to draw an unusually straight line here between a decline in support for public colleges and universities, driving them to turn to the private sector for support, and a blow to the deeper values of education. Historically, the American higher education landscape has nurtured the human capital for the world's most innovative and productive economy. It's been overwhelmingly public, intellectually independent, and above all, diverse. Responding to the needs of businesses has always been part of a college's mission. So has critical thought and open political debate over issues such as workers' rights.
But without taxpayer support for an independent public system, we end up with little more than training programs created and maintained by and for the benefit of existing private industry. A sponsored college is going to be a censored college. That's a loss to the nation's future, whether or not you side with the steelworkers in Milwaukee.