Corporation colleges and schools - American EducationPrivate schools and colleges operated by profit-making corporations for their employees. Such schools and colleges evolved as a replacement for the apprenticeship system in the 19th century, when machinery overtook manual crafts as the primary producer of products. At the time, new workers learned their skills by the so-called pick-up method, whereby they started as helpers and learned on-the-job skills by trial and error and by questioning their more experienced peers.
As companies expanded, some instituted so-called vestibule schools, in which helpers were given formal instruction in their work before actually starting the job. Later, as companies grew still larger, vestibule schools grew into training departments, which provided groups of workers with formal, classroom training before they actually assumed their duties. Although vestibule schools taught new workers basic skills, they did little to overcome high rates of worker illiteracy that resulted from the lack of compulsory education in the United States. Moreover, the end of the Civil War saw waves of non–English-speaking immigrants reach American shores, and American companies found themselves inundated by large numbers of illiterate, innumerate workers at the very time when technological changes required better skilled workers. Indeed, worker errors stemming from illiteracy and innumeracy were deemed a major factor in a decline in quality and sales of American products on world markets.
In 1882, the Hoe Company, a pioneer manufacturer of printing machinery, became the first company to establish a formal school to train new employees in job-related skills. A decade later, department store magnate JOHN WANAMAKER went a step further by organizing the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute in Philadelphia to give his workers “a working education in the arts and sciences of commerce and trade.” The curriculum included reading, writing, arithmetic, English, spelling, stenography, commercial geography, commercial law and business methods and administration. The institute had 24 teachers, some of them store executives, others Philadelphia school teachers. New employees spent two mornings a week in classes; advanced employees two evenings a week, after a generous, free dinner in the store cafeteria. In addition, younger workers were offered exercise classes to teach them “discipline, organization, precision and obedience” and give them “health lessons of muscular training that give bodily strength without which successful mental work is impossible.”
Wanamaker was more than pleased with the results of his institute. “Unintelligent and wasteful labor has lessened. The wisdom of cooperation and mutual helpfulness has been recognized. Knowledge of merchandise, its production, distribution and uses has been increased. Principles of control and government and organization have developed.”
The institute was so successful it became a model for other companies. In 1900, General Electric Research Laboratory set up an educational program for its scientific and technical workers. Westinghouse Research Laboratory followed suit in 1903, as did American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1907. Bell Telephone Company, meanwhile, sponsored a host of vestibule schools to train telephone installers and operators in what was then radically new telephone technology. In 1908, the farm equipment manufacturer International Harvester Company (now Navistar International) started a school for apprentices that soon included courses ranging from mechanical drawing to shopwork. The school willingly taught any course for which five or more employees enrolled. By 1913, there were enough corporation schools to form a National Association of Corporation Schools, whose statement of objectives proclaimed: “Corporations are realizing more and more the importance of education in the efficient management of their business. The company school has been sufficiently tried out as a method of increasing efficiency to warrant its continuance as an industrial factor.”
Although World War I stalled the growth of company schools, they proliferated in the 1920s, with some proving far more effective than others. In general, those designed solely to promote worker loyalty, prevent strikes and combat incursions by labor unions proved far less effective than those devoted entirely to improving worker skills. Bell Laboratories, the research arm of American Telephone & Telegraph, expanded its vestibule schools into the mammoth, company- wide Human Resources Department, with an annual budget in the billions of dollars and facilities that ranged from individual classrooms in local telephone company offices to a university- style campus in Lisle, Illinois.
After World War II, General Motors Corporation carried the corporation school concept a step further by building the degree-granting General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan. The institute enrolled more than 2,500 students in its five-year programs leading to bachelor of science degrees in engineering, with specialties in manufacturing, mechanical engineering, industrial engineering and electronic engineering. Students alternate 12 weeks on campus and 12 weeks on the job; about a quarter of the students are women. Although most courses are in science and engineering, the institute requires 18 credit hours of humanities and a number of communications courses that teach students to write reports and present them orally. Later called the GM Engineering and Management Institute and now Kettering University, the school became independent of General Motors Corporation in 1982, and because it now draws students from many other companies besides GM, it charges annual tuition of nearly $15,000. Room and board are extra, but earnings during the 12- week working periods usually provide enough to cover costs for the 12 weeks spent on campus. The original GM Institute served as a model for other major corporations, which began establishing degree-granting technical colleges in the mid-1990s to feed their executive and technical ranks with men and women trained to meet the specific needs of each sponsoring company. Although such institutes offer the same broad technical education available at many conventional universities, they also offer specialized courses related to each company’s products or services—semiconductors, for example, or computer software or hardware.