News broke Oct. 5 of a big new initiative by the Maine Community College System: We will spend $60 million over the next four years on a new “workforce training” program.
In the abstract, maybe it sounds pretty good. More than 24,000 Mainers will get free or discounted training to help them pursue jobs, thanks to a grant from the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce ($15.5 million), COVID relief funds ($35 million), and “another $10 million in matching funds from the private sector, other grants and established workforce funding.”
And it’s true that people in Maine do often have to pay for training to get certifications and other documents that allow them to work in certain professions. If you want to be a medical assistant, you may have to pay money for the course that gets you the certification you need to get you hired.
Many people see these “workforce training” initiatives as great ways to spend public money. It’s an investment, the theory goes, in reducing unemployment and making sure people can earn a living and be productive members of society. Companies will even be consulted, we’re told, on the kinds of skill deficits that need to be addressed in order to fill the workforce holes they have.
Isn’t it great that companies in health care, IT, construction, and manufacturing will now get a steady stream of ready-trained workers to help them increase their profits?
I’m here to tell you that’s nonsense. Instead, what these programs represent are offloading of human resources spending from private corporations to the public as a whole. It is not the public’s job to make sure that private companies have employees with the specific skills they need. Instead, we are simply subsidizing corporate profits with little to no guarantee of return.
Already, we make massive investments in public education. All told, it’s something like $4 billion in Maine taxpayer dollars per year, just to run the K-12 system, plus another $225 million or so on the university system. This is money well spent and I’m in favor of injecting yet more funds into these programs.
But “education” and “workforce training” are not one and the same.
Mainers are not fundamentally “workers.” They are fundamentally citizens that we agree as a society to invest in, creating educated people who are able to contribute meaningfully to our democracy, however they’d like. They might want to be academics, or business owners, or football players — whatever. They have many options beyond hourly and salaried employment.
And we have an agreed-upon Maine Learning Results where, by law, every public school system in the state teaches kids the same basic information, which we’ve decided collectively as a democracy is the right thing to teach them.
Now, corporations are saying, “Hey, my business plan requires people who know these specific skills,” and the state of Maine (along with some non-profit foundations and a little kick-in from these same corporations) is supposed to supply those people?
Rather, businesses — themselves — should pay to train workers in the specific skill sets they need. If your business plan requires people who know how to stick needles safely into people’s arms and draw blood, then you should train them to do that. If your business plan requires people to know how to configure firewalls, then you should train them to do that. If you’re trying to recruit medical assistants and system administrators, you should offer to pay for their certification and training. Those are not skills that the average citizen needs to operate in our democracy.
And this seems especially egregious in a health care setting. The public is paying to help corporations profit off our illnesses and the care of our elderly and disabled? Yikes!
This is not to say we shouldn’t teach computer science in our high schools. Or that anatomy and biology aren’t excellent topics for public education.
But that’s not what “workforce training” is.
Further, if we’re going to use public funds to create “workers,” why wouldn’t we spend that money to create workers for public roles that we desperately need? How about getting a Commercial Drivers License free if you agree to be a public school bus driver? How about free college for anyone who wants to be a teacher, social worker, corrections officer, police officer, public works department worker, or any of the other people we, the people, employ? In those instances, there’s a clear return on the public’s investment.
Yes, it’s true that people who get trained to go into private industry do return some of their investment in increased income taxes. It is, I agree, in the public’s best interest for people to increase their income, generally.
Further, writ large, I do think more and different types of education should be publicly funded. I mostly think UMaine should be free. Why do we provide pre-K through 12th grade free of charge, then ask you to pony up $20k for grade 13? Our state needs doctors and engineers and psychologists and highly educated people in general in order to have the high quality of life we enjoy here in Maine, so it makes sense to subsidize that education, the way just about every country around the world does.
And the way we pay for that is the way I might come around to thinking these workforce training initiatives are appropriate: Higher corporate taxes. If corporations were paying their fair share, if the wealthy individuals who owned them were paying their fair share, then I might support a public effort to supply specific skill sets. But they’re not.
In fact, when the public voted just a couple years back to increase taxes by 3% on money made by individuals over $200,000 a year in order to fund education, the legislature undid the people’s will after intense lobbying by corporations and high net worth individuals. In fact, the initial corporate income tax rate (3.5%) is actually lower than the initial individual income tax rate (5.8%). And the top rate for corporations — 8.93% for companies that make over $3.5 million a year — is pretty dang low. Remember: That’s profit. After the CEO has made their money, after the workers have been paid, after the rent has come due, after all expenses are accounted for, then we start taxing corporate income. And the federal tax is now just 21%! The lowest it has been in a hundred years.
Why should we, the public, invest in corporations if they’re not going to pay their fair share back into the communities who are supporting them?
Photo: Jetta Productions, Getty Images
Author: Sam Pfeifle is a writer, editor, and publisher living in Gray. He currently serves as the Chair of the MSAD 15 School Board, was recently the press coordinator for the Lisa for Maine campaign to elect Lisa Savage to the U.S. Senate in 2020, and fronts the World Famous Grassholes. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Source: Maine Beacon. October 5, 2021, https://mainebeacon.com/opinion-why-are-the-people-paying-for-private-companies-workforce-training/