January 28, 2005

Grab for the Goods, or Stand for the Good?

Justin Katz

Heading back from the post office, where I'd hoped to find waiting any of a handful of checks that I desperately need, I heard a caller to the Dan Yorke show who's in a position with which I've some personal experience. The guy had just incurred $25,000 of debt so that his wife could acquire her teaching certification, and now she's "paying her dues" as a substitute, waiting to get fully into the system. His emotional dilemma (although he sounded as if he'd made up his mind) was between his understanding that Rhode Island needs deep reform and his personal proximity to one of the state's gushing arteries of wealth. Take the reasonable side... or get his wife "in there" first?

Well, odds are he's going to have a long time to think about it, and I'm not referring to the slow rate of reform. The deal that teachers have in Rhode Island is so good and, frankly, the job can (as opposed to should) be done with such ease, when it's become habitual, that job seekers far outnumber open positions. Oh, one hears predictions — and has for years — of a mass retirement/teacher shortage, but one also observes those many teachers hanging in there years beyond expectations.

During my wife's experience subbing in Rhode Island, there were some among her peers who'd been waiting for nearly a decade for their "dues" to be paid. I suppose after that amount of time one becomes used to the telephone calls before dawn dictating the location of the day, and certainly by that time, the family has had to find a way to make up for the pitiful pay and cover the further costs in time and money to maintain the certification over the years. What's awfully difficult to get used to, however, is the lottery of politics and nepotism, whereby one never knows whether a school system will fill openings from the sub pool, from the teachers' and/or principal's buddy lists, or from out of state.

The more time I spend scrambling to stay above water at the submerging end of Rhode Island — and I've been getting my shoulders wet for six years now — the more I appreciate how thorough of a governmental and cultural change is necessary. Look around, and you'll discover deep problems that leave very little reason for optimism just about everywhere.

Take the trades. Noticing how much better my brothers-in-law have done with trades than I have with my degree, finding the opportunities for which my education prepares me to be scarce, and thinking it a healthy day-job balance to my various opinion and artistic endeavors, I've been looking to get into the apprentice process as either an electrician or a plumber. Financial circumstances, however, preclude my taking classes beforehand, so the only viable option is to take a job completely green.

In the past couple of weeks, I've called over a hundred companies, and meeting with some of each trade, I've found one response to be overwhelmingly common: Demand is so great that a journeyman will have absolutely no trouble finding work, and "experienced" apprentices will have little. But for the same reason, tradesmen are loath to slow themselves down training somebody new, and those willing to make the investment quickly reach their maximum. By Rhode Island law, you see, they can only have one apprentice per licensed tradesman.

Suppose I'm an entrepreneurial type who notices that nobody seems to be able to find a plumber for anything short of an emergency. To respond to that opportunity, I'd have to be an apprentice for at least four years, working an average of 2,000 hours per year and taking relevant classes for 144 hours per year before I could take the test to become a journeyman, paying various fees along the way. Then I'd have to work for a master plumber for another year before I could take the test to become a master myself. Finally able to start my own business, I could then hire one single apprentice to begin the process over again.

That may or may not seem reasonable; a bachelor's degree generally takes four years, after all, and that may qualify the graduate for nothing more than an entry-level job. But two factors must be taken into account. The first is that the starting point and necessary education for the work that most college grads do are largely determined by the market. If a region has an extremely high demand for a particular service, college mightn't even be necessary.

The second is more relevant to Rhode Island's comparative environment. In Massachusetts, the apprentice requirement for plumbers is three years and only 100 hours of schooling during each one, with one more year and another 100 hours of classes before taking the master's examination. From the individual's perspective, that's not a huge difference. But from the marketplace's perspective, it is.

Starting everybody green, and assuming everybody passes the tests immediately, after 12 years, Rhode Island's system will have turned one master plumber into four masters and four journeymen, able to take eight apprentices. The Massachusetts system? Double in every category. Not only will twice the customers receive service, but twice the unemployed people can step onto the career path. Moreover, the gap ripples outward into the economy in innumerable forms — from the cost of home renovations to the rates of pay for less-skilled jobs.

If you're still reading this lengthy venting session, you're probably wondering... well, you're probably wondering why. What are the takeaway points? The first is that these little instances of additional security for people who are already established permeate Rhode Island society, and they represent a tremendous drag on the state as it moves toward the future; this is unjust to those starting out in the state, and it doesn't bode well for quality of life trends for anybody. The second is that the willingness — the drive — to change must be so thorough as to encompass areas that most people not vested in the status quo don't give any thought.

As I said, there is not much room for optimism.

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I have to ask--why are you staying in RI? It's a nice place, but your story sounds familiar. Many RIers won't look very far for employment, some wont't even consider a commute out of their neighborhood. This promotes the squeeze your're in.

My last full year in RI, my job (after a masters degree) was driving a truck. I usually got 2 or 3 days of work each week. Friends of mine from URI, including one with a teaching cert., were bartending or working retail. We were lucky, since the RI unemployment rate at the time was dbl digits. I had the idea that I should sign up to be a subst math teacher in Providence, where I was living at the time. Well, were they ever insulted that I had the nerve to think that I could teach math to Providence high schoolers with just a masters and no certification.

In early 77 I got a temporary job in VA, in fall of 77 found a job in MD and moved to Baltimore, where I've stayed. Just for comparison, when we arrived in Baltimore, there was a big scandal about subst teachers in the city schools being discussed. It was that they'd take anybody who had 2 yrs college, and a fraternity ring was good enough evidence.

We did feel right at home with the corruption in the state gov't, with one ex-gov hiding out in Palm Springs and another in club fed.

Posted by: steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) at January 28, 2005 7:16 AM

Several of the holier than thou folks from the Poverty Institute came over to intellectually heckle a CATO speaker on welfare reform at Brown University a couples months ago and I challenged them on just this issue. What the hell is the point of sending all unwed mothers to junior college when you can't get a job with a full college degree. People are begging for workers in the trades and the pay is ample.

So then these government firsters will tell you 'trade schools' are the answer. You don't need trade schools, you need to reform the licensing laws. Instead of advocating for flushing government dollars down the toilet to 'educate' the unemployed they just need to leave licensing to the market. The obvious step would be to privatize the state licensing function and make it a voluntary emblem of professionalism. In the trades, contracters would likley find insurance availability might require them to attain some rational standard, and awareness of the consumer of the age old concept of 'caveat emptor' reemerges making referrals and successful completion of previous engagements a much more relevant criterion than some worthless piece of paper from the state.

Of course, what are the chances that RI will ever entertain such reforms. Zilch for the foreseeable future, so the only answer to RI's hidebound professional licensing is the Deniro character in Brazil [or a move out of state].

Posted by: Brian at January 31, 2005 9:42 AM