Press releases about federal grants are routine news, but here’s a head-scratcher that came in last week.
Two community colleges in Connecticut — Capital (in Hartford) and Housatonic (in Bridgeport) — will receive a total of $4.5 million to train people in health care, information technology and environmental technologies, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The grants are part of a $475 million set of national payments, which itself is part of a $2 billion, multi-year program to funnel money for “innovative training programs” at community colleges.
The $2 billion is through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps workers whose jobs are lost through increased imports or work moving overseas.
Nothing odd in any of that, until we look at the explanation behind the local grants, which my colleague Mara Lee noticed.
Capital and Housatonic are part of a “Northern Resiliency Consortium” of seven community colleges “in four Northeastern states (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts) that have been devastated by crises and natural catastrophes, including: Hurricane Sandy, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings.”
The explanation goes on to say that the community colleges will prepare trade-impacted workers, veterans and others in the three named sectors, which “play a critical role in times of crisis.”
A separate press release said the training could be used for skills in manufacturing, transportation and any science-technology fields.
Huh? Let’s get this straight: Two mass crimes and a weather event created the need for training in a vast range of job sectors?
All told, the seven colleges will receive $23.5 million. This could end up being money well spent, and in fact, U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal participated in an announcement about the grants in Hartford on Monday. The value of the training is not the issue here.
The point is, the hurricane and the two tragedies are utterly unrelated to one another, utterly unrelated to the need to train workers in those fields and utterly unrelated to foreign trade. This is “innovation” gone amok, creative wordplay designed to look nifty as an excuse to spread taxpayer money around.
Invoking Hurricane Sandy is fine. But invoking Newtown and the Boston Marathon as a reason to train workers in a vast range of unrelated job skills crosses the lines of bad taste.
Egan Reich, a spokesman at the U.S. Department of Labor, was not familiar with the programs because he was filling in for colleagues out on furloughs forced by the sequester when I called Friday. Irony noted. Reich thought about it and said using the crises might have just been a “flourish of language” in the effort to advance needed training.
“Those sectors aren’t being targeted because they play a critical role in times of crisis; they are because they’re growing,” Reich said.
At Capital Community College, John McNamara, director of institutional advancement, said the training will not be so broad, but will focus largely on emergency medical response, cyber-security and other areas whose need was highlighted in the tragedies.
“There’s no intent to exploit the God-awful stuff that has happened, particularly in our state,” he said. “It’s a legitimate effort to use these monies to enhance and upgrade what we do in terms of training for responses to these disasters.”
Good plan, poorly expressed in the consortium’s 256-page grant application. If we need more training, it isn’t because of Newtown. That tragedy should not become a catch-all reason for spending money.
Here’s a better idea: Let’s just hand out $2 billion to community colleges if that’s what we want to do, and stop forcing these resource-strapped institutions to stretch the bounds of logic in distasteful ways.