We all like to mouth platitudes about the importance of education for economic development, but I fear that we have developed a blind spot in the process. Yes, university education is a distinct good (that is why I have strenuously argued for lower tuition), but we are never going to have an economy totally comprised of university graduates. What we could have, although I pray we never do, is an economy made up of well-educated, abstract thinkers and those who wait on them. This is Oklahoma, not Greenwich or Georgetown.We are subsidizing degrees in the university system that have no economic benefit.
In order to build an economy that works for everyone, Central Oklahoma needs a skills revolution. This revolution means prioritizing career and technology education. In legislative debates about education spending, both state and local, we seem to get stuck on common and higher education, while ignoring what would rightfully be called “skills” education. So, yes, we need to spend more money on CareerTech in Central Oklahoma, from keeping student costs down, to expanding offerings. Meanwhile, state and local government need to expand partnerships with businesses, nonprofits and unions to increase apprenticeship opportunities.
The place where we need to see the most fundamental change is the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. This agency, which handles unemployment claims in our state, has performed a vital safety net for decades. But as the federal government has increased eligibility for unemployment all the way to 99 weeks, taxpayers have begun to question the wisdom of paying people to do nothing. The taxpayers’ gripe is valid, but the unemployed worker is not well-served, either. Work is not only about putting food on the table, but also about dignity and self-sufficiency. Even if we could afford to pay a majority of people a living wage to sit at home, we would be unwise to do so because of the infantilization of society that would ensue. I am by no means an economic determinist, but it is no coincidence that the decline of economic opportunity for blue-collar workers across our country has occurred alongside a decline in the health of blue-collar family life.
Therefore, we need to reorient unemployment to being primarily a retraining program. If you are unemployed for more than a month, you can continue receiving benefits only if you enroll in a program to train you in a skill that is in demand. As an aside: Let’s face it, we are subsidizing degrees in the university system that have no economic benefit whatsoever, to the state or the student. An economy for everyone: more expensive at first, maybe, but in the long run more than worth it.
Reese is a lawyer in downtown Oklahoma City.