In 1968 sanitation workers across New York City went on strike.
Frustrated by the precariousness of their employment terms and stagnating level of take-home pay, for nine days workers across the city refused to carry out their routine collections and garbage began to accumulate in rotting heaps on the sidewalks.
The consequences of such action were predictable. The putrid smell of decomposed waste wafted through the streets of Manhattan; the unsightly mess of assorted household and industrial detritus threatened to turn an issue of municipal administration into a public health emergency.
Residents were apoplectic and threatened rebellion, leading the state’s Governor to contemplate sending in the national guard to restore order. The most famous city in the world ground to a halt. In the end the Mayor had little recourse but to give into the demands of the sanitation workers, not completely, but sufficiently to be leave observers in little doubt about who had won the day.
The case of the New York sanitation strike is now an esoteric memory in the mythical history of labour relations in the United States. But it is illustrative of a dynamic at play in modern societies that can leave them exposed to gridlock and in more extreme cases the precipitous decomposition of social order.
The dynamic rests on the premise that it is not always those occupations that confer the most money, prestige or influence that are most important to a functioning society. The role of the sanitation worker is not an occupation that typically bestows a great deal of esteem nor renumeration, but the case of the ‘68 strike would suggest that underestimating its importance would be an act of hubris and foolishness.
These lessons have increased purchase in our current age of crisis. Since the onset of the global pandemic, society has found greater appreciation for those occupations who contribute most clearly to the continuing functioning of society. Carers, hospital cleaners, nurses, delivery drivers and yes—sanitation workers—are conferred a new special status: they are essential workers without whom society would literally grind to a halt. It is evident that those with practical or technical skills are regarded with a higher premium in this crisis because they display skills that need to be exercised in certain place-based contexts to produce a desired output.
These lessons have relevance for the role of further education and its ability to construct a new and important argument for the purpose of colleges in a post-Covid world.
The emerging discourse around essential workers, could fundamentally change the ways in which value is constructed in the labour market. Employers and society may start regarding desirable skills as those contribute more in wellbeing, health or happiness rather than simply those that do the most to increase marginal productivity. For a long time now, people have argued against using purely economic measures like gross national income as an indicator of the health of an economy. Arguing instead that a more accurate measurement will include a broader set of indicators that consider, social, health and other values. The current crisis could serve to crystallise the mind around such considerations like never before.
Our current moment then provides colleges with a new framework to communicate their value. It is based on the contribution by colleges of skills and talent into the labour market, but equally there is a social and human element to the supply of skills. This supply helps to create broader social value but so too does the role that colleges play as local institutions embedded in their communities.
Colleges as civic institutions
Colleges have always been proud of their links to local communities and this has been displayed throughout the onset of the crisis.
We have seen fantastic initiatives such as the Food Bank Friday campaign that has been initiated by London South East Colleges with 27 colleges joining the campaign to provide food and support to the most vulnerable in local communities. Elsewhere, colleges have been utilising their manufacturing expertise to provide personal protective equipment to front line health workers and care home staff.
Something that may also emerge from the crisis is a sense in which people recognise and appreciated the value that emerges from strong local communities. Even though we are physically isolated this has not prevented an outpouring of extraordinary acts of kindness, big and small, as people feel compelled to assist their neighbours. This sentiment is powerful, and one which colleges can harness going forward.
But colleges are just not about the institutions themselves but also about the people within them. Across many colleges the dedication and volunteering of individual students has been hugely inspiring to see. Colleges then could see themselves not just as a mobilising force to provide new skills into the labour market. But also, as a force to harness the enthusiasm and energy of a generation of young people who are acting selflessly to help those in need.
Colleges as a vehicle to challenge disadvantage
It has been clear to many that the impacts of Covid-19 are not felt equally across society. It is after all practical or technical occupations that run the greater risk of being exposed to the virus. The ability to undertake a job within the safety and security of one’s own home, is evidently not a privilege that is enjoyed by all.
Emerging from the crisis, there will be a fundamental role for colleges to play in protecting and promoting opportunities for those who are most disadvantaged. Here again, we can see the historic role of colleges in supporting social mobility and providing opportunities becomes even more important.
It seems probable that the crisis will lead to a renewed conversation about how we are a society focus not just on inequalities of wealth, but broader inequalities around physical and mental health, and the promotion of life chances.
There are of course practical policy measures that can be taken to better allow colleges to facilitate opportunities. One recommendation that Collab Group has consistently advocated for is to extend the entitlement to free adult education for first full Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications from 19-24-year olds to adults of any age. For younger people, now would be the time reintroduce the Education Maintenance Allowances to boost incomes of full-time FE students living in households suffering from the impact of Covid-19.
But there is also going to be a significant role for colleges in supporting existing learners through this crisis. Colleges provide a significant amount of pastoral care to those who may have additional support needs. At this challenging time, the role of colleges in providing compassionate support to those who have been impacted by the crisis, will be more important than ever.
Colleges in a new economy
It is difficult to know at this stage what the economy is going to look like once the immediate crisis has abated. What is certain though is that the impacts will be experienced for a long time and the disruption to so many industries will be considerable.
Immediately we have seen that industries like travel, retail and hospitality will be changed markedly by the disruption from Covid 19, and so colleges will need to respond to the changing landscape. Colleges have historically used labour market information and analytics to offer courses in line with what local economies need, but now the impetus to do so will be even more important.
There will also need to be a fundamental rethink of how government policy adapts to confront the new reality. Initiatives like the national retraining scheme were conceived in a world of near full employment, and if initial numbers of newly displaced workers signing up to Universal credit is a early warning light of what is to come, the number of people out of work is likely to be high. The issues that programmes like the national retraining scheme were responding to, like the increasing automation of large sectors of the economy, will still be here, but the urgency with which such a programme needs to be operationalised at scale has changed.
Again, the work that colleges have done historically to help those furthest from the labour market into employment provides a renewed justification for the powerful role that colleges play in helping to advance economic opportunity.
There is no doubt that the changes and disruptions that we are currently seeing are profound. Society is having to adapt to a once in a generation challenge that has completely upended normal life. But emerging from this, colleges will have an enhanced rationale to articulate the importance of what they do. Colleges have acted in an inspiring way through this crisis to ensure continuity in their operations and learners as best as they can. It is quickly becoming evident how colleges will form an essential component of the post covid-19 recovery.
Ian Pretty, CEO at Collab Group