P-Tech: Innovative Education Reform or a Wage to Servitude Pipeline?


Nassau Community College
AAUP Advocacy Chapter

November 23, 2015

I will leave to abler hands (or perhaps a later post) the issue of whether the P-Tech program violates the principle of shared governance and power over curricular matters woven into our contract. Nor do I want to examine the awkward and surprising way news of P-Tech came to our attention—sprung on us by Newsday. (It’s unsettling to say the least to imagine all the back-channel maneuvering leading up to this announcement—no faculty consultation at any stage?—and folks wonder why faculty feel infantilized by the “grown-ups” who run the college!). No, I want to probe a little deeper into the program’s backstory, and ask a few questions: 1. Was P-Tech created in response to a real problem? 2. Who are some of the primary movers behind P-Tech? 3. Does P-Tech truly serve the poor, educationally neglected demographic it was designed to lift out of poverty and into good jobs?

Was P-Tech created in response to a real problem? The closest thing to a founding document for the P-Tech program that I could locate is this, “STEM Pathways to College and Career Schools: A Development Guide.” It was prepared in February 2012 by IBM (citizenibm.com), and it defines the “critical decision points” going into planning and establishing the P-Tech program and the first P-Tech school in Brooklyn in September 2011 (the school was a a collaboration between CUNY, IBM, and the New York City Department of Education). IBM’s “Guide” states a primary motivation for the program: “As the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, growing evidence shows that there is a skills gap in the American economy.” The document cites no evidence to support this claim, but I would like to supply some evidence to refute it. After reviewing hundreds of articles and white papers published over the past 60 years, the author of  an article (“The STEM Crisis Is a Myth”) in the IEEE Spectrum, an engineering and computing trade journal, states, “[The Rand Report] argued that the best indicator of a shortfall would be a widespread rise in salaries throughout the STEM community. But the price of labor has not risen, as you would expect it to do if STEM workers were scarce. In computing and IT, wages have generally been stagnant for the past decade, according to the EPI and other analyses. And over the past 30 years, according to the Georgetown report, engineers’ and engineering technicians’ wages have grown the least of all STEM wages and also more slowly than those in non-STEM fields.”

IBM’s “STEM Pathways” article also cites as a particularly glaring problem the abysmal graduation rate at community colleges as a key reason for the “skills gap.” As evidence of the dangers to society and the economy emanating from this low community college completion rate, IBM cites an article called “Mobility Makers,” a “study” put out by a group called the Center for an Urban Future. Here is the article. It is interesting to note that funding for this “study” came from, guess who?, IBM. The address for the Center for an Urban Future is on Wall Street, and its board of directors is made up mostly of folks from investment banks.

Let’s pause here for a moment and think about the logic of P-Tech’s genesis: 1. IBM (and many others businesses and corporations) create a crisis, the so-called “skills gap,” the existence of which is supported only anecdotally. There is no economic evidence to support the theory (such as higher wages–you would think economics would be as basic to business as say biology and chemistry are to medicine). 2. The crisis is blamed on schools and students—the failure of community colleges to graduate business-ready workers. 3. P-Tech is created to solve both problems—the skills shortage and the college completion problem.

BUT if there is no problem to begin with—if, as lots of evidence suggests, there is no skills gap—what is IBM’s motivation for P-Tech? The Spectrum article has an answer: “Clearly, powerful forces must be at work to perpetuate the cycle. One is obvious: the bottom line. Companies would rather not pay STEM professionals high salaries with lavish benefits, offer them training on the job, or guarantee them decades of stable employment. So having an oversupply of workers, whether domestically educated or imported, is to their benefit. It gives employers a larger pool from which they can pick the “best and the brightest,” and it helps keep wages in check.” The short answer: IBM wants a ready, regular supply of cheap labor.

Who are some of the primary movers behind P-Tech? I don’t have space for as much as I want to say. One key individual is worth mentioning: Heather Briccetti, CEO of the Business Council of New York State. She is on the record opposing the $15 minimum wage, and that certainly goes against the interests of students and all people trying to earn a living wage. She is also a strong advocate of hydraulic fracturing. (Kudos to Cuomo for being on the right side of these issues). This is her response to Cuomo’s P-Tech announcement: “With baby boomers retiring in ever greater numbers, workforce development is key for both our member companies and the state. The aging out of quality workers, coupled with the growing skills gap, is a major problem for employers.” This is the industry line: aging out and skills gap. No mention is made of inequality or stagnant wages.

Does P-Tech help our student demographic? I am going to have to leave most of this for another post. My short answer: No. It sounds like a way of targeting a vulnerable population (the poor, people of color) and tracking them into “middle-skills” careers where they are subject to the whims of a highly volatile industry. Why won’t their jobs be outsourced or automated? What do they do then? It sounds like a school to wage-slave pipeline. Let’s educate for hope.

Tim Strode, PhD
NCC AAUP, Executive Committee

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