The level of education and the unemployment rate

How many times have you read such as the following, or something similar?

“Consider how the unemployment rate varies by education level: it’s more than 14 percent for those without a high school degree, under 10 percent for those with one, only about 5 percent for those with a college degree and even lower for those with advanced degrees.”

These words were Laura Tyson’s, taken from her op ed piece, Why We Need a Second Stimulus, in the Times of August 28th.

People read this (or in Tyson’s case write this) and conclude, not unreasonably, that as more and more Americans earn advanced degrees, —high school, college, or higher, — the unemployment rate will correspondingly fall. More and more conclude that not enough education is what it’s all about.

It is a fact that high school graduation rates have been stuck, for a generation or more, fluctuating a few percentage points above and below 75%, placing us internationally among developed nations at about the 15th position, and in a similar position in regard to graduation from college.

We’re all looking to lower our current unemployment rate of 9.5% representing nearly 15 million people out of work and looking for work. Is the answer, as Tyson and many pundits would have it, to raise our high school, college, and higher ed graduation rates, given that among these groups unemployment rates are much lower?

I would look at the situation differently and say that the unemployment rate reflects, not the failure of large numbers of kids to graduate from school and college, but our failure to provide viable alternatives to school and college for all those kids, probably many more than and not restricted to the 9.5% unemployed, for whom school as preparation for college is not appropriate.

This is something, however, that political correctness does not enable us to address and discuss. Higher education, including a college preparatory high school, not appropriate, and especially not appropriate for my child? Who wants to hear this about their child, and what politician wants to say this to a constituent and voter?

This is why we go on pretending that college preparatory school programs are appropriate for all children, because that’s what the parents and voters want to hear. The inevitable result of our doing this means that many, probably many more than the some 30% who regularly drop out of high school (50% in the large, inner city systems), find themselves all grown-up but not in possession of the training and knowledge that might have landed them a good job.

No wonder that at this point in their lives, and with or without a high school diploma or the equivalent, the problems begin for so many of our young people. Unemployment rates for the young, often minority adults in our largest cities, are well over the 20% level, well over twice the rate for adults in general. For too many of these young people have learned little or nothing useful to them and their future while in school.

For them school ought to have been a time when they could find out about themselves, about who they were, what they could do, what they were most interested in and wanted to do, about their strengths and weaknesses etc. Instead school was (and still is) not that. Instead school has become a kind of “race to the top,” that which means that many don’t make it, falling down somewhere along the way.

The irony is that while there is no shortage of work that needs to be done, in fact probably much more work out there than there are available workers to do it, many are told that there is no work for them. Why? Because they have failed to acquire, in school or elsewhere, those good “work” habits and skills that might have guaranteed them a job, and instead have only learned that they’re not very good at those things that society, mistakenly, seems to value most, or at least put the most monetary value on.

In regard to the education of our young how might we correct the terrible mistakes of the past and present? How might we prepare our young people, and not just the particularly gifted and talented ones, for doing with interest and satisfaction and delight any number of the real jobs that are out there and by and large go undone?

We blame the present unemployment situation on the precipitously declining number of manufacturing jobs in the country, as these jobs are transferred to other countries where labor costs are much lower. But the service and maintenance industries in our own country could expand exponentially, promising for those prepared many more jobs than the jobs lost in manufacturing.

But instead of preparing, and, yes, training, our young people for work in these industries —think of education, health care, infrastructure — building, road, rail, and bridge maintenance, home services and repair etc. — we go pushing all of our young people to stay too long in college preparatory school tracks in which they’re not interested and for which they’re not suitable (in spite of Jaime Escalante’s example at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles), while what we’re really doing is introducing them to failure before they’ve even begun.

So what would it take to change our schools? What would it take to provide the appropriate learning and training for kids, probably the majority of them, who should not be going on to 4 year colleges? For now too many of them with our encouragement do go on to college and if they finish (most don’t) account for the present spate of devalued college diplomas.

There are solutions out there. I think of Germany where kids in high school will, with on-the-job training, learn a trade, and I think of our own past, of a time, prior to Horace Mann’s common school (representing, by the way, a colossal misreading of the educational needs of the country), when kids probably made good use of school as a place to learn a skill needed for a trade, or perhaps even to acquire the knowledge needed for higher education. A much earlier time when school was useful and appropriate, not yet a Procrustean bed on which kids were expected to lie down together grouped by age for 10 or more years regardless of the fit.

One thought on “The level of education and the unemployment rate”

  1. Philip:

    Many thoughts here. I think you make a very good point about the need for children to have the right education based on their abilities – 4 year college, graduate, trade schools, etc.

    Unemployment is clearly higher among those with no skills, but I know a ton of people in Silicon Valley with PhDs and other graduate degrees that cannot find work.

    I do not think the US can solely be a service or maintenance economy. We need manufacturing and we can do this even with higher labor costs.

    Germany, as the second largest exporter in the world, provides a great example of this particularly as they have much higher employee costs than we do in the US.

    Perhaps this is solved with the educational system that you propose of children being guided into the right line of work and hence training/edu based upon innate abilities.

    Outside of education there is a fundamental problem with American business, which is much less pronounced in Germany – GREED.

    Most American management is obsessed with the short-term in terms of EPS with little regard for the medium/long term or how this effects the US or the labor force as a whole over time.

    Management gets paid outrageous sums, which is not the case in Germany. American business needs to focus on the short, medium and long term. We can have a healthy manufacturing sector and need one, but this takes a cultural change – difficult in our world of MBAs.

    Anti-business legislation needs to be addressed as well as businesses that lobby solely based on greed rather than what’s good for the country long term.

    As for economists – I’ll defer to Shaw.

    “If all the economists were laid end to end, they’d never reach a conclusion.”



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