Valley Perspective; The Business of Our Schools Is Education; Good schools are good for local companies, but it's a mistake to think that the value lies in their ability to train students for area jobs

By SHIRLEY SVORNY,  Los Angeles Times [Valley Edition],  Oct 4, 1998

At a recent education forum held by the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. (VICA), I was on a panel addressing problems with the educational system serving the San Fernando Valley. I was asked to speak about the Valley's economy and its labor force requirements. It was my understanding that the organizers wanted me to talk about the nature of Valley industries--44% service-sector jobs, 15% manufacturing, for example--and about how training must be aimed at steering individuals toward specific jobs. Instead, I argued that this view of the labor market is based on faulty premises; Valley schools should not focus on training aimed at meeting local business needs. Such a policy would limit the options and success of both workers and businesses.

The idea that Valley schools should prepare students to meet the needs of area employers was the underlying theme at recent meetings of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley. These discussions led to alliance support for a city-funded ($300,000) Valley Economic Development Center project to survey local businesses about their labor needs and then communicate those needs to local school officials.

There is a value to local businesses in having good schools but it has little to do with directly supplying local labor. Good schools make it easier for companies to attract and retain labor, particularly highly skilled workers willing to sacrifice income in exchange for a quality education for their children. Educational institutions can create an environment that benefits businesses, not because of the specific contribution they make to the labor force but because they act as a magnet to attract highly skilled workers.

It is a mistake to think that local schools should train students for local jobs. This would severely limit the opportunities available to graduates as they entered the labor force. The goal of the educational system should be to offer an education that allows each student to meet his or her potential.

The whole process of going to school and finding a job is one of finding the right match. When given the choice, individuals pick schools or training programs--not necessarily near their homes--that match their goals and ability. Graduates go on to choose jobs but not necessarily near their homes or where they went to school. Because the labor market is very mobile, efforts to target training for certain types of jobs in a community are doomed.

At the same time, companies are ill-served by suggestions that they limit their hiring to the local labor market. If somehow we could force businesses to hire locally, we could compromise their ability to compete; survival requires that businesses choose from the widest available labor pool.

Discussions of weaknesses in educational institutions in the Valley that focus on training workers to meet local business needs, such as those behind the Valley Economic Development Center study, are misguided.

Educational achievement must be the goal of educational institutions--judged by test scores and other such measures. The main purpose of Valley schools should be to educate the children who live here, to take them as far as they can go, given their talents and inclinations. Besides the moral high road of this position, Valley businesses would benefit; improvements in school quality would make them more competitive in attracting the kinds of workers that lead to business success.

The best business-promoting strategy for the Valley is to focus business efforts toward motivating dramatic improvement in the achievement of our public school graduates. Business leaders should focus on the things that researchers have found improve educational outcomes. They should support efforts leading to competition among schools or school districts, either through a voucher system that pits private against public schools or through massive dismantling of the Los Angeles Unified School District to force competition among very small local districts. Mayor Richard Riordan has argued forcibly for changes that would eliminate seniority and other rules that offer teachers job protection, so that teachers who did not meet school standards for performance could be dismissed.

Improving the reputation of our public schools is a win-win proposition. It would promote business interests in the Valley by reducing job turnover and making it easier to attract skilled labor. Property owners would prosper, as improved schools could be expected to increase land values across all categories of property. And best of all, improving Valley schools would benefit children as well.

Shirley Svorny is a professor of economics at Cal State Northridge