March 2011
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TD Magazine

Anthony Carnevale

Professor and economist Anthony Carnevale is the research professor and director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, an independent, not-for-profit research and policy institute that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands. Spanning more than 30 years, his career includes leadership positions with the Committee for Economic Development, the Educational Testing Service, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. In 1983, ASTD recruited him to serve as the founding president of the Institute for Workplace Learning.

Well-respected as an economist, policy analyst, and scholar, Carnevale has received presidential appointments to serve on a number of White House and federal commissions, including the White House Commission on Technology and Adult Education, the National Commission on Employment Policy, and the White House Commission in Productivity.


Carnevale received his bachelor’s from Colby College and his doctorate in public finance economics from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

Q| How did you initially become interested in workforce and employment policy issues?

I was raised in a household and in a place where there were no jobs - Northern Maine in the 1950s. That, I suppose, made me curious about work. And then there are a couple of other reasons: I think that ultimately I became interested because I'm still pretty close to being an immigrant. My mother was Irish and my father was Italian. So they had an immigrant's interest in The American Dream, which is the striving - that is, the belief that there is opportunity.

I've always associated jobs and the opportunity for education with the essential American mission, and what makes the United States different. Learning and work are two authentic human urges - I think they're fundamental. In this society, those urges are embedded in the culture as well. That is, we welcome anyone who is willing to work. For me, it was always the tension between that commitment and the reality of it.

Later, in policy work, what became very clear by the 1970s and '80s was that ultimately access to training is what determined your life chances. So the core mission in education and training, I've always believed, is to make people employable. While there are other missions--to make people good citizens and good neighbors and to promote learning for its own sake-- in the end, if the education and training system doesn't make people employable, the system will fail at doing all the other things it wants to do. At least in this society. I come at education from the job side. I guess that's what distinguishes my career in many ways.

Q| What was the inspiration behind starting the Institute for Workplace Learning back in the 1980s?

I had worked mostly in policy and politics in a variety of roles, almost all to do with jobs and education and training. And the action shifted. In the 70s, it began to become very clear that something fundamental was wrong with the American economy. We had high inflation and no growth. There was deep concern about American competitiveness. After the 1980-1981 recession, it was clear that there was a massive restructuring of economy - essentially a move away from manufacturing and natural resource industries toward service industries. And the way work was done and organized was going to change dramatically. And it did. We laid off a good 20 percent of the workforce during the '80-'81 recession.

Companies and employers began to restructure themselves in networks - not so much these old top-down behemoths of Ford Motor Company or GM. I was participating in that largely through industry, working through labor and management. Then I started working with particular companies as they were restructuring.

I become involved with the institute largely as a result of two people at ASTD. Bob Craig who for decades the produced the Training and Development Handbook and was the Washington representative. ASTD was then in Wisconsin. Craig was the DC end of it and worked with national industry groups, the Congress, and so on. So I knew him through that. It was essentially his idea that there needed to be some sort of institution that was focused on both theory and practice in this transition.

The second person was Curtis Plott - the president of ASTD for many, many years. It was Craig's vision really and Curt's competence. Curt's probably one of the single most competent managers I've ever worked with. He basically built the institute and handed it to me. It's not so much what I did; it's what they did - frankly.

It was a terrific experience in part because we were working on these questions at a time when they were very real and occurring in real time. And training and different forms of work and organizations that now seem old hat - team-based production and that sort of thing - were brand new in those days. So it was pretty exciting.

Companies were very interested in what we were doing, because they were looking anywhere they could to find people who had some sense of what was going on across the economy - outside their own institutions. ASTD caught the wave at the right time. And Curt Plott moved ASTD from Wisconsin to Washington. That's when ASTD really came into its own - a real national institution. In the end, it was about leadership and that was Bob Craig and Curt Plott.

Q| What do you see as the most critical issue for the workplace training and learning industry today?

I think the crucial questions, now and going forward, center around the fact that learning on the job is more and more critical. The pace of change in institutions driven by technology and economic change is essentially beyond the control of companies and governments. It's become tethered to the locomotive of the global economy. We don't get to decide anymore, whether or not we use a new technology or reorganize; whether or not we're competitive depends not only decisions made in the United States, but decisions made all over the world. It's a system that is, in many ways, a runaway train.

The need for learning on the job grows with that. At the same time, there is so much volatility-- so much churning in the economy that the commitment between employees and employers is very much reduced. People are more loyal to their skills now than they are to their bosses; bosses are more loyal to their bottom line than they are to their workers; - that's just the reality in this economy.

So there's a dilemma on how you develop and qualify workers so they are able to survive in jobs and move on to the next job. And at the same time encourage them to learn more while they are on the job. The way we are doing that is that we are demanding higher qualifications coming in the door.

I think human capital will be at a premium. When the recession's done, the issue about competition for talent could become very difficult, and with the Baby Boomers retiring (38 percent of the workforce; 40 million workers), we lose more years of experience.


This sets up a global market in human capital - but there are limits. We are able to draw from the rest of the world's talent pool, but that will run out as competition increases.

Q| What is one change you'd like to see in public policy as it relates to employee skills training?

It's clear that we can't afford the educational preparation that we need for Americans. We're tapped out. We've invested huge amounts in higher education and training and so on. It's not enough--which is why the proprietary schools are doing so well. We need to find new kinds of efficiency. The most obvious one is learning and earning at the same time--to try to somehow build a new version of the old apprenticeship system. There is a fair amount of this that goes on already - there's cooperative education, internships, and there are apprenticeships still in the old industrial world. But they're not very carefully structured.

We have more Americans who go to college or some kind of post secondary institutions while they're working than anywhere else in the modern developed world. The difference is in Europe what they learn on the job and what they learn in school is the same thing. They are in the same occupation. In America, you go to school for software engineering and work at McDonalds.

The most obvious reform - just not clear how much of it is possible--is to somehow mix schooling and work so that this learning is complementary in each of those places. Employers would have to participate in ways they haven't before. The alternative is to compete for talent once it's created. And that's very expensive. And there won't be enough of it to go around. There are many industries - finance, education, health care-- that make up the majority of real career jobs where there's a real powerful interest in getting a solid supply of highly skilled workers. And the only way to do that may be to participate in the process of creating them.

Q| Are you working on any new books or projects?

Our largest study is the "Help Wanted" piece in which we project jobs and skill requirements in particular occupations out to 2018. We will do this study every two to three years. There are summary statistics and a lot of detail - a fairly large project. The study requires us to project the economy as well as how workers are used in it.

We also do that for individual states, occupations, and industries. We are working on a report about 21st century skills, which should be available sometime this year, and we are finishing a study on STEM and the ability of the current system to produce those skills. We'll also be doing a detailed study on the health care industry. The center will probably put out five or six studies between now and this time next year.

Q| What do you find rewarding about your work as a professor and academic?

There's a degree of independence in the role that I haven't had in the others. We essentially use our sense of what's important and what's not to choose a broad array of subject matter and ask questions that have more long-term implications for basic knowledge. There's room for basic research that doesn't have immediate use. Principally, the academic freedom is what's rewarding.

About the Author

Phaedra Brotherton is a trained career development facilitator and certified professional resume writer. She is former manager of ATD’s Career Development Community of Practice, and was previously senior writer/editor for ATD.

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