More Electricians, Please: Charles Koch Turns to Vocational Training

The Charles Koch Foundation handles most of the Koch brothers’ contested involvement in higher education. Until now, they have dealt mostly with university economics and business departments. Late last month, however, Charles Koch told Wichita Business Journal about his foundation’s new interest in promoting postsecondary vocational education. 

He discussed the ways in which "successful companies try to keep the new entrants down,” a practice he labels "cronyism.” Koch took as an example the steep upfront costs required to attain proper credentials as a cab driver, and then related this same concept to the increasing number of entry-level positions that require formal education. This cronyism, Koch conceded, is 

great for a company like ours. We make more money that way because we have less competition and less innovation. But for the country as a whole, it's horrible. And for the disadvantaged people trying to get started, it's unconscionable in my view.

He also said his foundation has teamed with Mike Rowe of the television show Dirty Jobs. Rowe’s program, mikeroweWORKS, has thus far awarded around $1.6 million for scholarships, stipends and travel costs for students to attend accredited technical and vocational education programs. Rowe's position, as Koch described it, is that 

pushing all these kids into four-year liberal arts (programs), they have all this debt, they don't have the aptitude for it, so they end up driving cabs if they can get a medallion, or tending bar, or unemployed... Whereas they may have great aptitudes as an electrician or a mechanic, making $100,000 or $200,000 a year. 

If this talk signals a major new focus of funding by the Charles Koch Foundation, that's significant given the deep pockets here (Charles Koch is worth $40 billion) and the foundation's long track record on higher ed grantmaking. The foundation has donated over $50 million to education and the social sciences between 2003 and 2011. As the chart below indicates, that chunk represents about 5/6th's of their total giving during that time.

Source: The Foundation Directory's profile on the Charles Koch Foundation

Add to that $50 million the $6.8 million the Koch Foundation gave their 6 favorite universities in 2012 alone, according to the most recent tax filings available. Add to that the additional combined $6 million they gave West Virginia University and Catholic University of America in late 2013 and early 2014.

In the past, the university system has primarily served the Kochs as a venue to promote ideological arguments against government regulation in all its varied forms, and devoted little attention to higher education policy. Now that seems to be changing, and Charles Koch is hardly alone in recognizing that vocational and technical training is a hot area where new funding can make a difference. But here's a question: Does the Charles Koch Foundation have the internal wonk firepower to properly chart a grantmaking strategy in this area? One wonders, since staffers there like Allison Kasic and John Hardin seem to be part of the Koch's ideological operation.