Education and Employment in the changing job market
- Gary Kaplan | BOSTON | 9/1/12
The lack of anything readable about the Red Sox left a summer news vacuum that was filled by … education studies. Or, more precisely, studies on the connection between education and employment.
No fewer than 5 —count ‘em, five —studies appeared between Memorial Day and Labor Day. They came from the National Bureau of Economic Research, Georgetown University, Rutgers University, the Brookings Institution and the National Employment Law Project. They all said that getting a job depends on having post-secondary education. Read that sentence closely: it doesn’t say “getting a good job,or a decent job, or a high-paying job. It says getting a job. Any job.”
What the studies say is that the structure of the labor market has changed. The key change is the hollowing-out of mid-level jobs in construction, finance/insurance/real estate, manufacturing, information, and government. “Growth has been concentrated in lower-wage occupations… and higher-wage occupations… leaving a significant mid-wage gap…(NELP August 2012).” Lacking mid-range opportunities, workers without high-end resumes are forced down to low-end jobs, competing with even less-credentialed candidates. This shift is pushing the least-educated totally out of the job market.
“Americans with no more than a high school education have continued to lose jobs during the recovery, while better-educated people have gained millions of jobs (NYT 8/15/12).” The Rutgers study quantifies the scope of the crisis: 70% of high school graduates 18 to 24 years old can’t find full time work. That’s 14 million young people without a foothold in the new labor market. That’s a massive disconnect.
But the good news, out of NBER, is that an associates’ degree is enough to get into the market. So all we have to do is send these 14 million young people to community college.
And here’s the next disconnect. Even if community colleges had the capacity to absorb millions of new students (which they do not), most of these 14 million and their younger colleagues coming up behind do not have the academic skills for associate degree-level work. More than 60% of entering community college students have to take remedial courses—called “developmental courses”—because their math and English skills do not meet community college standards. “Developmental” courses cover topics like whole numbers, fractions, decimals, percents; grammar, punctuation, spelling and vocabulary. The courses do not count toward a degree. In Massachusetts last year, one-third of all community college enrollments—a total of 74,000 –were in “developmental” courses.
A long pause is in order. Why do 60% of community college applicants, most of them recent high school graduates who passed their state graduation tests, fall short of community college standards? This question plunges us into the maelstrom of the education reform debate. And here’s an even wider disconnect.
Ten years after No Child Left Behind, 20 years after the Massachusetts education reform law of 1993, have we reformed K-12 education? Have we restored the United States to world leadership? Have we made enough progress to satisfy—anyone?
You don’t have to be Tom Friedman to know that the US doesn’t rank in the global top 10 in any category of educational achievement: not in math, not in science, not in language arts, not in college graduation rate, not even in high school graduation rate. You don’t have to be an education researcher or a labor market economist to know that if 60% of entering community college students can’t do the work, we’re in deep, deep disconnect.
As the torrid season wound down, Condoleezza Rice strode across the podium on the hurricane-drenched coast of Florida and articulated the challenge in ringing terms. “The crisis in K-12 education is a threat to the very fabric of who we are, “ said the former secretary of state. “We need great teachers… we have to have high standards for our kids… and we need to give parents greater choice… This is the civil rights issue of our day.”
The secretary’s call to arms did not specify how any of these goals can be met. Articulating lofty goals without addressing the means to reach those goals is the biggest disconnect of all, favored by both Parties. We can hope that the other Party, when they convene in Charlotte, will re-connect goals and means and tell us how we will prepare the next generation of American workers for the high-skill job market that awaits them after Labor Day.