Why Is This Koch Brother Getting Jazzed About Training Electricians?

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 at the Charles Koch Foundation, that's significant given the deep pockets here (Charles Koch is worth $40 billion) and the foundation's long history of grantmaking in higher ed. 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, however, the university system has mostly served the Kochs as a venue to promote ideological arguments against government regulation in all its varied forms; they have paid little attention to higher education policy. Now that seems to be changing, and Charles Koch is not the only one to notice that new funding could make a difference in the area of vocational and technical training.

It remains debatable whether or not the Charles Koch Foundation has the resources necessary to develop a sensible grantmaking strategy in this area; the foundation's higher ed staffers, Allison Kasic and John Hardin, seem to be part of the Kochs' ideological operation.