The Council on Foreign Relations has published The Work Ahead Machines, Skills, and U.S. Leadership in the Twenty-First Century, which is an Independent Task Force Report chaired by John Engler and Penny Pritzker, Some of the discussion goes over familiar ground: innovation is needed, technology is changing work, economic growth is important, we should redesign unemployment assistance and sick leave for the modern work force, we should do more to assist displaced workers, and so on. But I want to focus on one chapter of the report, "Education, Training, and the Labor Market," and its discussion of that how the interaction between education and job training has been shifting.
Early in the 20th century, for example, the US experienced an enormous surge in high school completion rates, and for most of those graduates, the high school education was good and sufficient preparation for moving into the workforce. The report notes (footnotes omitted):
"From 1910 to 1940, just as modern techniques of mass production were being spread across the country, the number of fourteen- to seventeen-year-old Americans attending high school rose from 18 to 73 percent, and high school completion rose from 9 to 51 percent. No other country even came close to achieving these levels until decades later. Most of the progress was led by state and local governments and citizen groups seized with the urgency of extending free education to as many young people as possible, not by the federal government. The lack of accessible educational opportunities that are clearly and transparently linked to the changing demands of the job market is a significant obstacle to improving work outcomes for Americans. Most of these students did not go on to college but rather went directly into the workforce, with high school completion marking the essential credential needed for most to succeed."
For jobs in the modern economy, a high school education often isn't enough. But frankly, a college education often isn't enough either--because a gap has developed between the skills that employers want and the outcome of many college degrees. The report says:
Increasingly, the challenge is not just providing more education but providing better-targeted education that leads to better work opportunities, even as the target will continue to shift as new technologies are adopted. The number of job openings nationwide—nearly six million—is near record level, yet many employers say they struggle to find the employees they need. The challenges exist not only in higher-paying jobs in information technology and business services, but also in a range of middle-wage jobs, from nursing to manufacturing to traditional trades. The primary focus of the educational system has continued to be formal education for young people—increasing high school completion rates and expanding college enrollment and completion. But that system is too often inadequate in preparing Americans for many of the faster-growing, better-paying jobs in which employers are looking for some mixture of soft skills, specific technical skills, some practical on-the-job experience, and a capacity for lifelong learning.
But while employers complain about what the education system isn't providing, they mostly haven't taken an active role in trying to get what they need. Many employers have scaled back on on-the-job training. The report says:
"Employers, for their part, have been slow to develop or expand their own training systems to fill in the gaps from the educational system. ... Personnel hiring decisions may be the most important ones that any employer makes, yet most employers make those decisions entirely on the spot market. No company would leave its acquisition of critical raw materials or components to the last moment, but most hiring decisions are made as jobs come open. Employers find themselves competing for often scarce pools of talent, without developing and deepening those talent pools themselves. According to a Harvard Business School survey, just one-quarter of companies have any type of relationship with local community colleges to help prepare employees with the skills they need. Not surprisingly, given their lack of involvement, many companies complain that too few graduates leave school with skills that employers are demanding. ... A successful workforce model for the twenty-first century will require a different mind-set. Employers need to think about not just competing for talent, but also how to develop the pipeline of talent they need to build their workforce. That will require greater collaboration not just with educational providers but also with other, even competing, employers. Employers should embrace collaborative approaches to talent development; big gains could be made, for example, by industry sectors working together to ensure a steady flow of properly educated and trained students for their future workforce. ... Such work-experience programs are too rare—just 20 percent of adults report having received any sort of work experience as part of their education, and most of that was concentrated in health care and teaching."
The report is full of cheerful, chipper examples: collaborations between a company and a community college, apprenticeship programs, companies that offers mid-career retraining options, and so on. All good things! But it feels to me as if the scale and scope of the necessary shift is very large--indeed, so large that I am uncertain as to whether the currently constituted educational-employer complex can handle it.
The report says: "Making job preparation an education priority will require transformations that are every bit as dramatic as those that came about in the early part of the twentieth century." Take that thought seriously for a moment. As noted above, from 1910 to 1940, "the number of fourteen- to seventeen-year-old Americans attending high school rose from 18 to 73 percent, and high school completion rose from 9 to 51 percent." I'm not seeing a groundswell of change for the education system or its relationship to jobs that in any way even remotely approaches this scale of change
Most people in education (like me) are comfortable in a process of learning through books and classrooms. When given a task like "job skills preparation," we can talk a good game about change (we're good at talking), but our natural instinct is to find a textbook on the subject and start drawing up homework assignments. Follow up with some standardized written tests to confer some newfangled set of credentials, and we academics feel as if we've done a pretty good job. But that approach only functions well for a subset of future workers.
Meanwhile, the online labor market is a chaos of websites run by companies and by third parties. Those who can navigate the system are often the same ones who are comfortable filling out forms in classrooms and doing book reports. Again, it only functions well for a subset of future workers. The education-employer system is dramatically ill-equipped to help large number of mid-career workers retool and retrain as technology evolves.
But American public opinion believes that education should offer clear connections to work. As the report says:
"Americans increasingly believe that job preparation is a crucial mission for educators. The 2017 Phi Delta Kappa poll on attitudes toward public schools found that Americans want schools to “help position students for their working lives after school. That means both direct career preparation and efforts to develop students’ interpersonal skills.” Specifically, while support for rigorous academic programs remains strong, 82 percent of Americans also want to see job and career classes offered in schools, and 86 percent favor certificate or licensing programs that prepare students for employment."
It seems to me that a lot of employers would prefer not to be involved in training, and just want educators to do it, while a lot of educators would prefer that employers remain at arms-length from their curriculum and classrooms. I think some of the discomfort of Americans with the US labor market, despite the very low unemployment rates, comes from a concern that our society is not coming to grips with issue of building job skills that lead to secure and productive careers.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.