Friday, January 3, 2014

Working Smart and Hard For Local Development: College Educations Are Overprioritized

The Mineral County Development Authority yesterday began advertising for a new executive director.  Requirements include a bachelors' degree in business, economics, or a related field or at least seven years of related experience.  

In the past year, experts have started realizing that the priority reflected in this ad is backwards. Real world experience should count more than paper earned by sitting in a series of classrooms.  This is more true now than ever before, considering the changing priorities of higher education.

The digital age means that people can bypass the traditional four year college degree and find low cost or even free training on their own.  Want to be a reporter? The Douglas Reynolds National Center of Business Journalism offers several free webinars per year to teach newsgathering and writing.  Last summer, Business Insider published descriptions of 12 companies offering training in fast growing fields that cost much less than most four year degrees.

Higher education defenders will say that basic training courses are fine, but one needs college courses to understand the big picture of how the economy works.  Not so.  Many colleges and universities have embraced left wing economic agendas.  Positions like West Virginia University's BB&T endowed chair in free market studies are few and far between.  As higher education watchdog groups like Young America's Foundation point out, courses pushing Marxism and government control of the economy are much more common.

Want an education of how the market works?  Read Milton and Rosa Friedman's Free to Choose.  Or watch his series of videos on You Tube.  Another fine work is the 130 word A Capitalist Manifesto by Gary Wolfram.  Also very accessible is Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom which explains how government can ruin an economy and devolve into tyranny from its own best intentions.  Ten videos and a few hundred pages are much cheaper and much more educational than tens of thousands spent for a four year degree.

Even more importantly, many people at a surprisingly young age learn very quickly about business and economics without ever setting foot in a college.  How?  By working in a family business or starting their own.  Nothing teaches like experience.  Investing the effort and resources, taking the risks, developing judgment, all of these are key elements in building a sound economic mind.  

Mike Rowe, famous for hosting and narrating shows like Deadliest Catch, argues against "propaganda" employed by colleges and universities to increase student populations. He says that pushing college education "worked for colleges, that's fore sure.  Enrollments soared."  But high unemployment among graduates and trillion dollar student debt show that it is not the right fit for a lot of people.  Three million jobs are there for the taking, but colleges do not prepare the young for actual work.

On a side note, it is amazing that the current presidential administration tries to make economic policy without relying on a single individual with such experience.

Experience and the right education teach that economic development revolves around a very simple principle, competitive advantage.  West Virginia economic development fails because it tries to ignore that simple truth.  Elaborate webs of regulations and licensing requirements, too many taxes and fees, and a court system stacked against business all conspire to outstrip the advantages of location, low costs, and available workforce.  Only the worse situations created by Maryland and northern Virginia counties have helped West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle grow as it has.  Their higher taxes, ridiculous zoning and environmental laws, among other things, have made their economic climate conducive mainly to government and non profits.  The private sector in Maryland, outside of the service sector near Washington, is near death.  West Virginia is only attractive in relative terms.  

But our state does not take the steps necessary to make the right changes.  We do not reform our court system.  We do not cut regulations.  We have relied too much in the past on huge tax breaks to targeted industries that usually skip town as soon as the breaks are over.  Meanwhile established businesses in the state have to shoulder their burden.

This is why when local governments advertise for economic development officials, they need to list like this: "Seven years of business experience mandatory.  Understanding of basic free market economics plus state and local business conditions necessary.  Four year degree in economics or business helpful, but not needed."

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