In his book, ‘The Case against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money,” George Mason University professor Bryan Caplan argues, as the title of his book suggests, that much of secondary school and some 80% of time and expense dedicated to earning a college degree is wasted. Most of the facts and theories we absorb in college have little applicability in the “real world,” that is to say, the world of work, and are soon forgotten. The primary value of a college degree, he contends, is to signal to the labor market that someone has the intelligence, diligence and conformity (willingness to play the rules of the game) to make a good employee.
I’m about halfway through the book, so I don’t know if he adds any important qualifiers, but his arguments were in the back of my mind today as I toured the North Anna Power Station. Other than the engineers (most of whom went to Virginia Tech), relatively few of its 950 employees have college degrees. But that’s not to say they aren’t educated. They are well schooled in the highly specific knowledge and skills required to operate and maintain a nuclear power station.
It takes 39 months of training — classroom instruction, working in the power plant, and scenario training — to become a “plant operator” permitted to enter the nuclear inner sanctum. To graduate to a job in the control room requires an additional 18 months, including hundreds of hours undergoing computer-modeled simulations in a training facility mocked up to resemble the control room. Not only must student-employees meet the expectations of their Dominion managers, they must pass muster with Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC) evaluators.
Any electric utility wants its employees to perform to high standards. But nuclear power plants are a no-forgiveness environment. There is so much at stake should anything go wrong — another Three Mile Island- or Fukushima-style incident would be calamitous to Virginia, not to mention the company — that Dominion spares no expense with training. As consequence, the power-plant jobs are well paid. According to Recruiter.com, the pay scale for nuclear power-station operators ranges nationally from $56,000 to $84,000 a year, largely based on tenure. Not bad work for a high school education.
Circling back to Caplan’s book… People retain skills that they apply in the workplace. Indeed, they sharpen and refine those skills. By contrast the “fade out” of college knowledge and skills tends to be high. Some fields of study, such as engineering, computer science, and the health professions, are useful because they teach skills that will be employed in the workplace. But others — theology, ethnic/gender studies, and foreign languages, to pick three examples — are largely useless unless the student aspires to pursue a career teaching those topics.
Personally, I believe there is workplace value in learning how to think and communicate clearly in the spoken and written word — skills which, ideally, are taught in college. But I get Caplan’s larger point. Most of the knowledge I accumulated in pursuit of my B.A. and M.A. in history (with a concentration in African studies) has dissipated. I remember little of the content because I have had no occasion in my adult life to reinforce what I learned. I would like to think that intangible skills gained from my honors history program — how to think rigorously and analytically — carried over to my career in journalism. But I will confess that the ability to write in an academic style proved of so little value in newspaper reporting that I nearly got fired from my first full-time job with the Martinsville Bulletin. Most of what facility I have in writing has come from pounding away on typewriters and keyboards, year after year after year, on the job.
After getting a glimpse of Dominion’s training program, I am more inclined to agree with Caplan’s assessment than I was before: Much of the time and money dedicated to higher education probably is wasted. How to encourage more companies to invest more in vocational training, however, remains an open question. The U.S. workforce is highly mobile. Nuclear power-related skills are not readily transferable, so investing in training makes sense for Dominion. But other companies have little incentive to follow its example if its trainees jump to employers. How we solve that dilemma, I do not know.There are currently no comments highlighted.