So Michael Petrilli leads with a somewhat feckless proposal to limit college access but then his follow-up appears, in which he’s shocked—yea, shocked!—to discover that vocational education has significant cognitive demands!
Petrilli still pretends that these deficiencies are an “outrage” caused by poor schools that charters and choice and firing teachers will fix. But here’s the crux of his second piece:
So let’s assume, then, that for the foreseeable future many of our high schools are going to have a heck of a lot of entering students who are prepared for neither a true college-prep curricular route nor a high-quality CTE program. The high school will do its best, but in all likelihood, a great many of these young people will graduate (if they graduate) with low-level skills that won’t leave them prepared for college or a well-paying career. What should we do with these students while they are in high school? What education offerings would benefit them the most?
We’ve got all these kids that won’t be ready for a well-paying career, so what do we do with them while they are in high school? Seriously?
He skips right by the important question: what do these kids do for a job?
Petrilli’s entire reason for existing, professionally speaking, is to offer education as a silver bullet. He’s not someone who will cheerfully accept Paul Bruno’s data showing that education doesn’t fight poverty.
But even Petrilli has to acknowledge that our country has all sorts of jobs that don’t require any training.
What jobs require minimum skills? All the jobs reformers and progressives both describe in disparaging terms: Walmart clerk, hotel maid, custodian, garbage collector, handyman, fast food worker. The average elite makes these jobs sound unfit, an insult to even consider.
I had a kid who I will call Sam in my Math Support Class for Kids Who Didn’t Pass the Graduation Test. He wasn’t particularly memorable, charming or appealing, a slacker constantly trying to get out of any effort. If I didn’t take away his cell phone, he’d never work and even without his cell phone he’d be more likely to draw than practice the basic skills I tried to help him improve on. His skills are incredibly weak; like many low IQ kids he’s got good solid math facts but no ability to synthesize or generalize.
A couple months ago, long after he’d finished my class, Sam came bounding into my room beaming. BEAMING. He’d gotten a job at Subway. He was going to make a presentation in English class on how to make a sandwich, and he was wondering if I could help him edit his essay on the same topic. His essay was weak, but it demonstrated significant effort on his part, and he took my edit suggestions to heart and returned with a still-weak-but-much-improved version. I’ve seen him several times since, getting an update on his increasing hours, a raise, getting his GED because he can’t pass the graduation test. He’s got a purpose and he’s excited. He could give a damn if elites think his job’s a dead end.
Sam’s Indian. A recent immigrant. Weak English skills, which his parents (who are not college graduates) share. Given that many if not all the Subways in my area are franchised by south Asians, I am reasonably sure he got the job through family connections.
You know any women who get manicures? Ask them the last time they paid a non-Vietnamese woman for the service. Then wonder whether these salons would hire anyone who doesn’t speak the boss’s language.
Read this 1994 qualitative study, in which managers of large low or unskilled work forces describe why they hire more Hispanics, the power of networks, and the ability to get good workers for less because hiring by referral was cheaper, even if, or especially if, the workers were all Hispanic. Notice how the employers talk about black and white low-skilled workers, natives, who resented the treatment. Notice the discussion of different hostilities between blacks and Hispanics, but also the fact that Dominicans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans didn’t like working together. Then read the same author, Roger Waldinger, finding that second generation Hispanic immigrants are not, as was the case with other immigrants, moving up. So we imported millions of illegal Central Americans, they had kids that are now permanently low skilled workers—and still, as any employer can tell you, subject to the same inter-group hostilities, but now just as entitled as the blacks and whites are. This is a group we need more of?
Of course, all of these employers and managers in that research are white. As the Vietnamese cartel in manicure businesses suggest, Asians have taken to starting their own businesses where they mostly hire their own. Thought I was making it up about Subway and Indians? 1500 Patels in the Subway franchise database—I imagine there are all sorts of Singhs and Guptas, too. In hotels and motels, Indians own 50% of recent hotels and 60% of budget motels. With Cambodians, it’s doughnuts; the Cambodian community loans money to incoming refugees to start a franchise; the independent Cambodian shop owners have largely chased out Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, and Winchells out of LA. Cambodians have no history of donuts and from all accounts just use powdered donut mix but thanks to the network effects of cheap money and a steady supply of other low-skilled Cambodian workers, often family members, and undiscriminating illegal Mexican customers looking for a cheap breakfast, they do pretty well. In much of the eastern US, >Dunkin Donuts franchises are dominated by Indians and Portuguese. Meanwhile, 90% of the liquor stores in Baltimore are owned by Koreans where, as in LA, they sell to primarily black communities but never hire blacks to work in their stores. But in the main, Koreans left independently owned businesses and turned to franchises as well. Koreans pretty much own the frozen yogurt market: Yogurtland, Pinkberry and Red Mango have done much to challenge TCBY. I’ve never seen a Yogurtland that didn’t employ Koreans only, but I can’t find any demographics on their employee population.
Franchises and small business are not only dominated by immigrant populations who haven’t, er, gotten the memo on diversity and tolerance, but they are used as a way for non-Americans to get over here in the first place. Franchise Times: “The franchise community has been developing unique tools to secure additional capital. One exciting approach is the use of the EB-5 program (better known as “buying a Green Card”).”
Regardless of ownership, franchises and small businesses that use a lot of unskilled labor are usually hiring illegal immigrants—in fact, “undocumented” Hispanics seem to be the one non-Asian group that Asian small business owners don’t object to as employees, although Chinese illegals have been coming through the southern border in big numbers, so maybe that will change. In at least one quite horrible case, Pakistani 7-Eleven owners brought over illegal Pakistanis and locked them up to work in their stores 18 hours a day for well under minimum wage and committed all sorts of identity theft and money laundering to make millions.
We do not need immigrants to come over to America and exploit illegal aliens. This, manifestly, is a job that Americans are willing to take on.
So Mr. Petrilli wants to know how to best educate low-skilled high school students, but before I get to that, it’s clear that Mr. Petrilli needs some education.
The single most important thing we can do for low-skilled high school students is improve their job market opportunities and the quality of their work experience.
First step: stop importing competition. It’s not enough simply to crack down on Chinese and Hispanic illegal immigration; we should also realize that many immigrants are coming to America with family money and community networks to start businesses that aren’t positively affecting the low-skilled job market. Many of these immigrants are coming over via chain migration.
It is not immediately apparent to me that we gain when McDonalds and other franchise food chains reduce their company-owned stores in favor of franchises. Less risk for the companies, less transparency for the hiring processes, and improved deniability. Since it’s probably impractical to stop franchises, we should at least hold Subway, 7-Eleven, McDonalds, and the rest responsible for hiring violations—not just illegal employees, but also skewed employee demographics, which starts with increased reporting.
Small businesses owned by recent immigrants that only hire family members and take advantage of immigrant networks may have some positive impact on the economy. But not only are we importing competition for our low and unskilled workers, but our schools are required to educate their children, who are often very low-skilled, creating more classroom impact and oh, yeah, the reformers will then scream again about our lousy schools.
So the key to helping unskilled American workers is to improve their job opportunities by reducing or stopping immigration, insisting that immigrant employers follow the same hiring rules as everyone else, and demand transparency from large employers who are doing their best to avoid it by outsourcing to smaller companies to do their dirty work. If we tighten their labor market, many of the (abuses may stop as they don’t have a ready supply of willing victims. Hopefully, pay will increase.
But there’s plenty we could do in education, too, where reduced immigration will also allow us to focus more meaningfully on low-skilled citizens. High school vocational education could be expanded to include low-skilled jobs. Bill Gates and other well-meaning billionaires could open some franchises in districts with many unskilled students. Create training programs for kids to learn the importance of showing up on time, understanding customer service, identify assistant manager potential. Start a training program at Home Depot and Lowes, teach boys how to use all the equipment. Then tell the locals that they can call their local schools directly for miscellaneous labor needs and get a guaranteed source, rather than picking up whoever’s sitting out in front of Home Depot.
I know nothing about how state and local employers hire meter maids, garbage workers, and the like. I bet most reformers don’t either. How about finding out? How about internship programs, again funded by all those well-meaning billionaires, that give kids summer experience writing parking tickets, picking up recyclables, collecting bridge tolls—are any of these jobs outsourced? Suppose we have a discussion about that.
As for education, we can teach kids how to read, write, calculate, and engage their brain on the issues of the day without moving beyond an 8th grade vocabulary. We can even extend that 8th grade vocabulary a bit. Teach them how to read newspaper articles, how to write their opinions in an organized fashion, how to write a letter to the editor—how to craft a job application letter specific to the situation. Certainly we could teach them the basics of business entrepreneurism for those who would like to try self-employment or small business. How about living opportunities? Many kids in this situation can’t afford an apartment and so live with their parents, feeling infantilized. Perhaps they need to be educated on their opportunities: sharing rentals, more affordable regions, and so on.
We don’t even really know yet how to educate people with IQs less than 100, which is probably the most important educational research we aren’t doing. Maybe we can move some of the kids from unskilled to skilled technician jobs, with the right approach.
I’m glad Michael Petrilli has acknowledged reality. But in doing so, he’s opened a big can of worms for the reform movement. Once we realize that the bulk of the kids reformers have been focusing on, the lowest achievers, can’t be educated in the manner they demand, then it becomes clear that employment, not education, is the key area for reform.
Let me finish by referring back to the Sam anecdote. We should not be importing families who will add to the unskilled labor pool, but have an advantage because of immigrant social networks and capital.
But I can’t begin to tell you how completely transformed Sam was when he got his job. He had a purpose. He felt useful. I remember vaguely in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed a time when she made a contemptuous remark about their work and hurt a co-worker’s feelings. The co-worker didn’t think the task was a waste of time; she was proud of getting it done correctly.
Progressives and reformers hold these jobs in low esteem because they simply can’t conceive that for low skilled people, these jobs can be meaningful and satisfying. But other times, they’re just jobs, just something that people do to make money and live. “Just a job” isn’t an insult. It’s an objective. It’s a goal. It’s time to start focusing on meaningful employment opportunities for the entire population, instead of giving immigrants the jobs our unskilled workforce needs.