Summer Jobs and the National Interest

By Michael McCarry 

Op-Ed | @CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

Two recent articles – one in Time magazine and the other on National Public Radio – demonstrate that American students are losing interest in summer jobs.

Time cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicating that only 35 per cent of American teenagers actually look for summer jobs, and notes (again BLS stats) that the number of young Americans seeking summer jobs has declined 15 per cent over the past 15 years.  So this is a trend, not an aberration.

Time argues that the decline is mostly about American students’ aspirations for higher education.  As college admission in the U.S. grows more and more competitive, American students increasingly spend their summers on academic enrichment or resume-building activities like internships, organized sports, and volunteering.  Time reports that resort operators have filled the gap with older American workers and international university students, who come to the U.S. through the Department of State’s Summer Work Travel (SWT) program.

NPR agrees that declining interest in summer jobs has to do with college, but arrives at its conclusion via a different path.  The piece makes a persuasive economic case that low wages from a summer resort job no longer make a dent in sharply rising college costs.  Students thus invest their time in activities they perceive to have a higher return, i.e. enhancing their resumes, even if the return isn’t monetary.

The appearance of these articles is timely.  The White House and several federal agencies are working on plans to implement an Executive Order entitled, “Buy American, Hire American.”  A sharp reduction in the Summer Work Travel program is apparently under discussion.

This would be a very serious mistake.

First, as the BLS data show, international students who come to the U.S. on SWT are not displacing Americans.  Instead, they are filling a gap that the tourism sector of our economy desperately needs filled.  Time quotes Tommy Diehl, president of a major attraction in the Wisconsin Dells:  “If anyone says these people are taking jobs away from Americans, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Just as important, SWT is the State Department’s largest exchange program, and its only program that reaches undergraduates in significant numbers.  And because the program is funded through student fees, all these positive people-to-people connections happen at no cost to the US taxpayer.

Students come from all over the world – Ireland, Russia, Ukraine, China, Turkey, and Brazil are among the largest sending countries – and enjoy the powerful cultural exchange experience of learning to live and work in a new country.  Students cover their program and living costs through their earnings.  Surveys show that over 90 per cent of these students are motivated to visit the U.S. by their desire for cultural exchange, not because they want to work. Ninety per cent have a positive experience, make American friends, and improve their English.  And a remarkable 98 per cent recommended the program to friends, a clear sign of a successful exchange program.

Here’s where we are, in policy terms:

We have a popular, successful Summer Work Travel program that builds good will for the U.S around the world at no cost to the American taxpayer, directly connects us with students who are future leaders in their home countries, and supports our tourism sector by filling a critical seasonal gap.

And yet, policymakers are considering sharply reducing the size of the program, or perhaps even eliminating it, despite much diminished demand from Americans for such jobs.

Someone asked me recently if this circumstance really poses a serious threat to the program.  After all, she continued, SWT has faced regulatory challenges in recent years and always has emerged stronger.

My answer:  on a scale of existential threat with 10 being the most threatening, we are now facing a 10.  What’s going on in Washington is not a discussion about the best way to run the program, but whether we should have the program at all.

All American stakeholders in this program – host communities, employers, and sponsors – should make their voices heard by their Members of Congress and the White House.  Summer Work Travel is a national diplomatic asset – low cost, high value, long-term payoff – that we need to preserve.

Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry is a Senior Advisor at CENET. With over 37 years of international experience– both as a Foreign Service Officer and the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange– Michael McCarry is a leader within the exchange community, with distinct insight and knowledge in policy, foreign affairs, and public diplomacy. 

The Summer Work Travel program is good for Americans and great for America. This cultural exchange program that supports strong economies and & U.S. national security interests is under attack. For more information and ways to get involved in protecting this valuable public diplomacy program, please visit Americans for Cultural Exchange or contact CENET.  

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

 

 

 

 

 

Worrisome Gaps in State Department Staffing

By Michael McCarry 

Op-Ed | #CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

About a month ago, I wrote that Congress’s strong appropriation for the Department of State and for its exchange programs was a very encouraging sign for all of us in the exchange community.

Maybe I wrote too soon.

An NPR interview this week with Max Bergmann, who worked at State for six years during the Obama Administration, publicly reinforced what I’ve been hearing for some time from colleagues in and around the Department:  that under Secretary Rex Tillerson, State is being – to use Bergmann’s term – ‘hollowed out’.

Even with a one per cent increase in funding for the current fiscal year (not usually considered a sign of dire financial straits), the Trump administration’s State Department has instituted a hiring freeze.  That means that as people leave or retire, they mostly are not replaced.  Some senior Foreign Service Officers and civil servants – people with abiding personal commitments to U.S. national security and career-deep expertise – have been reassigned to lesser positions, and have chosen to leave the Department.  And the intake of junior Foreign Service officers appears to have slowed to a trickle.

Put these details together and here’s what you get:  State is choosing to diminish itself at its senior and junior rungs, and to not fill vacancies.  It’s hard to discern how this approach will enhance our diplomacy, or our national security.

You can hear Bergmann’s NPR interview here.

And read his longer treatment of the topic in a Politico article here.

I served in the Foreign Service for about 16 years, with overseas tours in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Beijing, plus several Washington assignments.  I can tell you that the State Department’s foreign service and civil service staff is exceptional – smart, dedicated, and passionate about serving the American public.  I was proud to be among them, every single day.

The notion that we can conduct successful diplomacy on the cheap is just wrong.  The United States remains the most important country in the world, and we need a State Department that can effectively serve our national interests, needs, and ambitions.  That requires resources, not just dollars but also human resources.

State Department staffing is not the kind of topic that will lead the nightly news, but it is critically important to our national well-being.  This issue raises serious alarm bells, and thus deserves serious attention from Congress, the media, and the public.

Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry is a Senior Advisor at CENET. With over 37 years of international experience– both as a Foreign Service Officer and the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange– Michael McCarry is a leader within the exchange community, with distinct insight and knowledge in policy, foreign affairs, and public diplomacy. 

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

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More Funding for Exchanges: Good News for Everyone

By Michael McCarry 

Op-Ed | #CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

In its budget deal to keep the government open until the end of Fiscal Year 2017 (Sept. 30), Congress increased overall State Department funding by 1 per cent, and funded the Department’s exchange programs at $634 million, a 7 per cent increase and only $1 million short of all-time high water mark for exchanges in FY2010.

This is extraordinarily good news for the country, and for anyone who cares about exchanges, even if your programs do not receive federal funding.

Here’s why:

President Trump’s first budget request (for Fiscal Year 2018, which begins October 1 of this year) seeks a 29 per cent reduction in State Department funding, and deep cuts for most exchange programs.

Like any other President, Trump only gets to propose funding levels for federal agencies and programs.  Congress decides.  And it will need to make its decisions on Trump’s first budget in time for the new fiscal year that begins October 1, 2017.  If necessary (and it often is), Congress can postpone that deadline by passing Continuing Resolutions that keep the government running temporarily at the previous year’s funding levels.

During the Watergate crisis, secret source Deep Throat (FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt) famously told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that if he wanted to understand what was going on, he needed to “follow the money”.  That’s still good advice when trying to parse Washington politics.

In Washington, money serves as its own kind of language.  In its appropriations for the State Department and exchange programs, Congress sent the White House a clear, even emphatic message:  diplomacy matters.

The current Republican-controlled Congress is not alone in this view.

Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, noted in a 2008 speech, “…our own national security toolbox must be well-equipped with more than just hammers.”

Current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, testifying before Congress for the Pentagon as General Mattis, made the same point in 2013: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition… I think it’s a cost-benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget as we deal with the outcome of an apparent American withdrawal from the international scene.”

Work is just beginning on 2018 appropriations, but the strong expression of support from Congress leaves the State Department and its exchange programs in a good position as the next funding cycle begins. The 2017 numbers tell us that Congress is not prepared to consider the steep cuts proposed by the President.

And that creates a much more positive outlook for everyone in the exchange field, even those whose programs derive support from participant fees. If budget numbers are indeed a Washington dialect, a significant cut would tell you that diplomacy and exchanges are not considered important. A funding boost such as the one just enacted tells you they matter a lot.

In the political world, that message matters, because the rationale for exchange programs – whatever the funding mechanism – is identical.  Members of Congress who favor strong funding for exchanges are more likely to understand and support well-run exchanges that don’t receive federal dollars, because all exchanges promote mutual understanding and respect, and thus, as Secretaries of Defense have testified, support U.S. national security.

Moreover, every exchange program is better off with a strong Department of State.  We all need U.S. embassies with the facilities and staff to adjudicate visas in a timely way, to reach out to potential exchange participants with information and encouragement, and to direct exchange programs in ways that serve the public interest.

Recent Congressional action on exchange funding and the very clear message it sends go a long way preserving that capacity for all of us.


Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry is a Senior Advisor at CENET. With over 37 years of international experience– both as a Foreign Service Officer and the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange– Michael McCarry is a leader within the exchange community, with distinct insight and knowledge in policy, foreign affairs, and public diplomacy. 

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

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