Corporations move to fill US education gap

Corporations are taking matters into their own hands. With technology changing at a dizzying rate, they face a growing need to train employees in everything from state-of-the-art equipment to the newest management techniques. Often they find that high schools and colleges can't keep pace with developments in the business world.

So they're taking up chalk and pointer and starting classes of their own - and in some cases, sapping teachers and students from already struggling public and private colleges and universities.

Corporations are now spending $3 billion a year to train their employees, according to a recent survey by Training magazine, up from a small percentage of that figure 15 years ago. Almost half as many teachers are now employed in the private sector as are employed by America's public school system, a total of nearly 250,000 full-time corporate educators.

These private-sector programs, alternately known as ''corporate education'' and ''human resources development,'' used to consist primarily of management training. But they have grown to include everything from training in communication skills training and use of new equipment to employee motivation seminars and organization development courses.

The massive corporate investment in education is made necessary by the rapid pace of technological development, experts say. Corporations are finding that the need to constantly retrain workers and the slow reaction time of colleges and universities to changes in the economy are forcing them to take on the task in order to stay competitive.

Although corporate educators say they can't, won't, and don't want to take on the role of a liberal-arts college, the headlong dash of corporations into the education field may not bode well for academia.

''We've gone full circle from the traditional idea that colleges and universities had a monopoly of ownership on the production of knowledge and the teaching of people, to a situation where the available resources are no longer in colleges and universities but in the private sector,'' says Timothy Weaver, associate professor of instructional development at Boston University.

For the most part, the growth of corporate education has not come at the expense of colleges and universities. Most educators inside and outside the private sector see the roles of the two as mutually exclusive, with corporate training continuing to be ''job specific.''

Still, the goals of schools and corporations often coincide, and in many instances there is close cooperation between the two. Private-sector schooling is soaking up some of the estimated 1 million students who graduated with teaching degrees in the 1970s but were unable to find work.

In addition, Boston College has begun a human resources education program which ''trains the trainers,'' grooming educators for training careers in private industry. Other universities are studying the concept, and dozens of high-tech companies have donated computer equipment to secondary schools to encourage interest in the field.

''There is a blurring of distinction between what the corporate world is doing in its investment in education and what the traditional system of colleges and universities are doing . . . ,'' says Mr. Weaver.

He cites examples of a leading consulting firm now offering a master's degree in education, a hospital that is awarding graduate degrees in health science, and a top high-technology firm, Wang, that has established a chartered, degree-granting institute.

But not everyone sees the competition as healthy. Leonard Nadler, professor of education at George Washington University and an authority on human resources development, says the private sector has more flexibility and money, giving it an unfair advantage.

Others complain that the private-sector buildup lures top academic talent. Robert Gower is one who took the leap. He was a college professor for 15 years before joining Raytheon Data Systems as a manager of curriculum and staff development.

''The university's budget was shrinking at the same time Raytheon was developing its staff,'' he says. ''I saw an opportunity and went after it. I like the task-oriented, get-things-done atmosphere in the private sector. Schools are going to have to acquire the same higher energy level.''

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