Ruhle: On tying education to workforce development — and respecting teachers

MSNBC host, at Middlesex County Business Summit, offers insights on state of economy in post-pandemic world

When it came time to discuss employment and workforce development issues in a post-pandemic economy, Stephanie Ruhle played the long game.

One of the biggest issues predates COVID — and even the turn of the century — the MSNBC host said. Ruhle said it is the result of generations of a failed educational policy, giving an explanation she gathered from noted entrepreneur and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

“He would say, ’We made a huge mistake in the last 50 years in America, that we told people that in order to be socially acceptable, in order to have the brand of being good parent, your kid has to go to college,’” she said.

“We sent scores of kids who were not necessarily academically geared to colleges for degrees that they didn’t want. More importantly, they did not need — degrees that were not connected to the jobs of today, tomorrow or even yesterday.”

It’s why Ruhle is such a proponent of vocational schools and other unique training methods — but not necessarily at the expense of the nation’s recent push to credit more kids with STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, degrees.

“While it’s fantastic that we have magnet schools, while it’s fantastic that we’ve created more and more gifted and talented programs for kids that are the academic top — and we’ve got these unbelievable programs to pull kids up — that’s a small portion of our kids,” she said. “The fact that we wiped out vo-tech is crazy to me.”

And hurting society, Ruhle said.

“Workforce development is the most important thing if you care about social change, care about economic development, care about how people can rise up from the bottom — that starts with getting into the foundation of a great education,” she said.

Ruhle, speaking Tuesday at the seventh annual Middlesex County Business Summit at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, is a subject-matter expert.

Not only is she one of the top business journalists in the country — one who actually breaks stories — she previously was a top Wall Street executive. That one-two punch of knowledge led to a widely entertaining — and passionate — fireside chat.

Which included a plea for more respect for teachers — and more effort to recruit another generation of them. The teacher shortage is another key aspect in the nation’s workforce development failures, Rhule said.

“What breaks my heart is that when we talk about education right now, all we’re talking about is social issues and cultural issues,” she said. “I’m not saying they don’t have value; they do. But what really does is giving our children the foundation.

“When is the last time we had a conversation about schools in this country and it had to do with the teacher shortage — and it had to do with the learning loss because of COVID? Those, to me, are the two biggest crises that are facing education in this country, more than social issues are.”

This is a workforce issue, Ruhle stressed.

“I don’t have the emotional strength to talk about books that we’re banning,” she said. “Let’s get the emotional strength to talk about hiring librarians — and how we’re going to get kids coming out of college to want to be teachers.

“Let’s pay our teachers and respect our teachers.”

Here’s a look at more of the conversation with Ruhle. Her comments are edited slightly for readability:

  • On summing up the economy in a word or with a political push: “I think it’s crazy was, we’re constantly, especially through a political lens, talking about, ‘Is the economy good, or the economy bad?’ We have 330 million people in this country. We have every possible demographic. It’s complicated. It depends who you are, what part of the country you live in, what your education status is. I don’t think that there’s one snapshot.”
  • On saying you care about small business as opposed to actually supporting it: “We all say, ‘Oh my gosh, I love my Main Street in my town, I love small businesses, we need to keep small business afloat,’ but, then, we don’t do it. Pre-pandemic, we all said we loved small business. And as we said that, we had five Amazon boxes sitting outside our front door.”
  • On the distribution of money during COVID and the fraud that resulted from it: “The government needed to get a lot of money out quickly — and they left the barn door open. If you committed fraud during COVID, you just ripped off America, you just ripped off taxpayers — and there is a special place in hell for you.”
  • On inflation and the Federal Reserve’s efforts: “We’re in is a very tricky situation. It’s very easy to attack that, the Fed, because the Federal Reserve is really the only game we have. And they only have a couple of tools. They have, in my opinion, threaded this needle in a pretty extraordinary way — so that we’re not facing a recession right now, we’re not in a disaster situation, unemployment is really low. Now, in order to get inflation to cool, and to slow the economy, we’re actually going to want unemployment to go up a little bit. And we can afford that. But people don’t like to see that headline. They freak out over it. But we have to find some sort of balance. All I’m saying is, it’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s tricky. And it’s a whole lot better than I thought it would be four years or three years, even one year ago.”
  • On higher wages bringing higher prices and blaming business owners for it: “We get really excited about increasing wages. We want that and it’s important. People deserve to make it a living wage, but we forget what happens on the other side. Everyone can say, ‘Businesses should make less money.’ Go be a business owner and tell me that. If you’re a small business owner, it’s very, very difficult to suddenly say I’m just going to pay a little more money; it’s got to come out somewhere.”
  • On increased union activity: “This is a really difficult push and pull. We want workers in this country to have more say and to have more rights. I’m not begrudging individuals for wanting more. But I think it’s really complicated equilibrium. And we’re at a time where we want jobs to stay in the U.S. To just look at companies and say, ’They’re just so greedy, and their executives make so much money’ — I just don’t think it’s that black and white.”
  • On Corporate America expecting buyouts: “They become addicted to it. Just like companies in the country became addicted to zero interest rates for way too long. Zero interest rates are free money. That’s when we overextended ourselves, big businesses and small businesses, individuals, and especially Corporate America, in my opinion — and I know, speaking of generalizations — have become addicted to this idea that the government will come and bail them out.”
  • On impact of corporate bailouts: “It’s actually why we see people saying: ‘I’m never paying my student loans back. Why should I? Companies don’t.’ On the one hand, you entered into a contract. But I also understand the sentiment that people feel that this is the burden that they’re carrying, that they can’t get over that hump in their life, and they don’t get rescued and companies do.”
  • On perceptions about companies and workers: “I do think we all are very quick to judge. It’s either: Companies are bad, or individuals are lazy. And I don’t think either one is correct.”