Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Urging Investments in Public Higher Education

Recent headlines touting continued job growth in Connecticut have obscured lackluster gains for the state’s chronically understaffed public sector. Sinéad Ruane, (right, in photo above), a chapter secretary in our affiliated CSU-AAUP, and fellow union member Jason Snyder (left), parsed the numbers in order to bring to light the broader implications in a recently published opinion editorial. Together, they warned that “public services will cease to be a mechanism to combat systemic racism if we fail to make the critical investments we need:”

The Connecticut Department of Labor (CTDOL)’s latest quarterly review of employment and wages (QCEW) indicated there was a strong economic forecast amid the post-pandemic resurgence. This supposedly is due to the state seeing a 3.2% increase in jobs during 2022. While at first glance this upward trajectory may show positive strides in the economy, without context this data point doesn’t paint a clear picture. It fails to examine the data through a broader lens – one that underscores the struggles that working families are facing, public and private, as the cost of living continues to soar.

Click here for the state labor department’s latest QCEW report.

As business professors in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system (Ruane is associate professor of management and organization and Snyder is professor and department chair of marketing at Central Connecticut State University), we believe it is important for that context to be provided.

The public sector, including public higher education, has always provided a ladder to advance the economic standing of generations of state residents. Not only are we proud to help our students work toward their dreams, but we acknowledge the role of state institutions in positioning faculty to help future generations.

One of us is a first-generation college student who benefited from public education throughout life. The other, who has studied in public universities in three different countries, understands that the commitment to making education accessible and affordable to all is a deliberate policy choice. Therefore, we feel compelled to help provide additional information as you consider the data.

The report highlights a 3.4% increase in total private industry employment but a minor bump in government employment which signals a well-known and data-backed fact – the public sector remains woefully underfunded and understaffed. And, since this increase includes local and federal employment and is following an historic state retirement wave, this small increase raises further concerns at the state level.

Click here to watch highlights of a recent joint labor-management public sector job fair.

One of the most striking revelations in the data is the growth in average annual wages. While this is undoubtedly positive, with an overall 4.4% wage increase across Connecticut jobs in 2022, it’s essential to view this wage growth through the lens of equity. The report indicates that private sector wages increased by 4.5% to $82,373, while government wages grew by 3.2% to $73,754. But even at the upper limit, living in Connecticut is increasingly unaffordable. The median rent in Connecticut is $2,000, utility rates remain nationally ranked for most expensive, health care costs are soaring, and these stagnant wage growth patterns are not keeping up.

Furthermore, public services have always served as a two-way path to the working class, especially for our residents of color, offering public services in an accessible manner while also providing good working-class jobs to lift families into the middle class. Public services will cease to be a mechanism to combat systemic racism if we fail to make the critical investments we need.

Click here for another union activist’s recently published op-ed demanding equity for the under-served.

It’s important to also recognize the economic benefits of strong workforce growth – in the public and private sector – and that they can be maximized through a well-educated and highly skilled workforce. This is where public higher education institutions play an indispensable role, providing affordable and local higher education options for students.

In fact, Connecticut State’s Capital campus, for example, ranks in the top five percent of two-year colleges nationwide when it comes to fostering upward mobility among its student body. Also, 55 percent of community college students are people of color and half of incoming students at state university campuses are racial or ethnic minorities.

Click here for our state employee union coalition’s recent online spot calling for public higher education investments.

So, as we celebrate the increase in job opportunities, we also must advocate for strategic investment in public higher education, which serves as a crucial pipeline for developing the skilled workforce demanded by emerging industries. For example, right now we are not graduating nearly enough civil engineering students to fill the jobs we expect to have in state employment over the next several years.

At a recent special legislative session, dozens of state employees from across state agencies came to the Capitol building with the hopes of urging lawmakers to address the $100 million deficit in public higher education funding. They explained to legislators that Connecticut’s trajectory toward prosperity hinges on a multi-faceted approach — one that combines private sector growth with robust public investments.

Click here for photos of lawmakers listening to union members’ “fund our future” message.

Public higher education is not a luxury but a cornerstone of this approach. By investing in public higher education, the state can cultivate a workforce that’s not only capable of driving economic innovation but is equipped to address the many challenges of our time. It’s a proven pathway to empower the working class, uplift marginalized communities and provide an avenue for upward mobility.

As experts dissect the QCEW data, we urge them to recognize that investment in public services isn’t an expenditure; it’s an investment in the future of our state. And, an investment in public higher education is an investment in the minds that will pioneer groundbreaking research, in the educators who will inspire generations, and in the workforce that will carry Connecticut into a prosperous tomorrow.

Click here for highlights of a recent demonstration members organized to denounce higher education cuts and tuition hikes.

So now we ask Governor Ned Lamont and members of the General Assembly, “what do you want your legacy to be?” One of groundbreaking development and unprecedented economic growth and development, or continued lackluster economic reports?

Click here for Ruane and Snyder’s original published commentary in The Courant.

Matt O'Connor
Matt O'Connorhttp://aftct.org
Communications Coordinator for AFT Connecticut, a labor federation of over 30,000 hard-working women and men in the Nutmeg State.
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