- - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

It is commonly believed that one key to achieving a more profitable balance between supply and demand in the American labor market is for more people to get a college degree. Statistical evidence abounds to support this assumption. For example, the Federal Reserve study’s conclusion that the difference in lifetime earnings between high school and college graduates is $830,000 (May, 2014)

Unfortunately, the statistics do not tell the whole story.

The first issue is the net dollar value of the degree. The nearly unbelievable rise in the cost of higher education can leave the young graduate with a bill of $200,000 or more for four years of college. This cost offsets a significant portion of the graduate’s possible additional earnings. Then there are the lost work years experienced by the college student while his counterpart is busy earning his living in the workplace — another significant offset. Finally, one of the major complaints of the past few years is that college graduates emerge from school to find themselves either underemployed or unemployed. So the new graduate sometimes must begin paying off college loans before any funds at all are coming in. This digs the hole even deeper.

The fact is that American education has not caught up with the 21st century whether we are talking about either high school or college programs. The education establishment at every level has traditionally had a visceral resistance to technology in any form. Their concept of the purpose of schooling is to broaden the individual’s basic skills and appreciation of the arts and sciences, including only incidentally some learning useful to earning a living. They believe that only way to accomplish these goals is to use teachers and classrooms. Of course, this position supports the conclusion that that there is no room in the education budget for technology because all the money available must be spent for personnel and facilities. This bias has traditionally left career training to the last two years of a 16-year process, if then.

I have written elsewhere about how to change this model of education. (Washington Times, May 17, 2015). But it is also important to re-think the content of our educational systems. Clearly, the mastery of basic skills — reading, writing and arithmetic — is critical to any further progress in education. Likewise, an understanding of history, art, science and music (traditionally called the “humanities”) is relevant to achieving happiness as a human being.

But it does not take 12 years to learn these things.

I recently reviewed a final examination which had to be passed by every eighth-grader in a 1910 one-room schoolhouse in rural Iowa. The questions were so sophisticated and detailed that, even though I have a doctorate and many years’ experience as an educator and writer, I could not have passed that test without studying first! But these 1910 farm kids in a one-room schoolhouse, with one teacher for eight grades had to know all this before they could graduate. Most never expected to return to a school. This was it. This was the end of their formal education. But they were better educated at the age of 14 than many of us will ever be in spite of our 16 or more years of “education”.

So, the first step in re-thinking our educational system is to STOP underestimating our children. In 1910, children had to assume adult responsibilities by the time they were 15 or 16 years old. How many of our children today could go out on their own at 16 and start their career? Probably many more than we might think.

We can introduce the humanities along with the mastery of basic skills in grade school. What we now call high school can then begin emphasizing the kinds of training in technology, entrepreneurship, science and the trades for the jobs which today constitute the foundation of our economy.

Many of today’s jobs are too specialized to be taught in school. In today’s marketplace, everyone needs training — from service desk operators, to auto mechanics, to electricians, to laboratory technicians, to pharmaceutical salespeople, to grocery store clerks, to computer programmers, technical support for users, to system integrators, installation and maintenance personnel, and product troubleshooters. But far too few get any training at all.

The people who know best the kinds of knowledge and skills which are needed to succeed in today’s world are the people who run America’s businesses. Obviously, if American companies want to improve their operations, they need people who know what they are doing. To have such people, businesses should take the example of athletic teams. They have intensive training camps before each season, in which the newcomers are thoroughly trained in their jobs; and the training continues throughout the season. They don’t expect someone to walk in off the street and know everything they need to know in order to win.

The bottom line is that the solution to the top-heavy labor market is not more college degrees. The solution is more people with more technical expertise. To achieve this goal businesses will have to take a leading role in re-designing America’s education and training programs.

The good news is that there is already an existing infrastructure of trade schools, both public and private, and community colleges with whom various companies and industry associations can partner to fill “America’s training deficit”. With increasing tensions in many of the countries adopted by American companies, and the invidious rise of radical Islam as well as the rise of hatred against America, there are increasing reasons to pull jobs back home. It is not as though we do not have enough workers who speak and read English and have relations with the consumer communities which many of these companies serve. They are all around us.

The other good news is that America “on-shored” more jobs than we lost overseas in 2014 for the first time in 25 years. An increasingly significant reason to expect this trend to continue is that the USA — totally unexpectedly — has become the world’s largest supplier of energy. Since energy is one of the highest cost items in any manufacturing or cyber-related industry, Americans will have a rapidly growing advantage in job-creating industries for the foreseeable future.

Thus we are getting a second chance — based again, as so many times in our past, on technology — to expand our employment base, to increase middle class incomes as well as to make our country thrive again. But it all depends on having people in place who are well trained and technologically savvy. Without human capital we cannot succeed.

Our education system must be re-designed to produce the 21st century worker. The challenge we face can be illustrated by a conversation I recently had with a young man. At 25 years old, he is an expert HVAC technician with 10 years’ experience beginning with summers in high school. He told me that he has had an interest in archeology since he was a child. He takes night courses to learn more about his hobby. We worked out a way for him to meet one of my friends at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History with a view to allowing him to become, over time, an amateur expert in archeology, while continuing to make his living as a tradesman.

If we can re-deign our education/training systems, this young man may become the prototype of millions of new American workers.

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