Our guest author today is James R. Stone, professor and director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education at the University of Louisville.
The headline of the USA Today article reads: “Tense Time for Workers, As Career Paths Fade Away” (January 13, 2011). The article notes that while most key economic indicators have improved over the past two years, the unemployment rate has remained persistently high. This is a jobless recovery.
Is this a time for pessimism or a time for a reality check?
This is not the first jobless recovery. The recession of the early 1990s spawned books with titles such as The Jobless Future (1994), A Future of Lousy Jobs (1990), The End of Work (1995), The End of Affluence (1995), and When Work Disappears (1996). Any one of those, and many other, similarly-titled books and articles could speak to today’s labor market crisis. Were these authors prescient or is the creative destruction in the labor market wrought by our relatively unbridled free enterprise system’s speeding up the cycles? I’ll leave that for economists to argue.
What is new this time around is the effect of the recession on recent college graduates.
For the first time since such records have been kept, recent college grads are experiencing unemployment at rates that mirror national averages – or exceed them, by some reports. The Los Angeles Times recently reported 10.6 percent unemployment among college graduates, compared to the national average of nearly 9.8 percent. Although these rates are lower for the 16-24 year-old age group, one has to wonder if the $20,000 to $40,000 annual investment, over four years, will ever be recovered.
Another factor, while not new, is troublesome. Many policy leaders tout the importance of preparing more and more of our young people for “high-skill” and presumably high-wage jobs. What they fail to understand or recognize is that although highly skilled occupations – those requiring baccalaureate preparation or more – pay well, they are also highly exportable. A researcher at Cornell University documented the movement to India of high-skilled jobs in finance, data modeling, actuarial analysis, medical research, radiology, software research and development, and many other areas. Simply put, if the intellectual work is computer-based, it can be performed anywhere in the world. As Robert Reich pointed out in his book, The Work of Nations (1992), work will chase the lowest wage rate. What we once saw in manufacturing, we are now seeing in other kinds of industries.
So, what should educators conclude from these trends?
During the last several decades of education reform, “College for All” has emerged as the new raison d’être of high school. High school has, in effect, become the new middle school. The only presumed utility of high school is to prepare adolescents for another round of education. A driving force of this emergent philosophy is the presumed necessity of more education as necessary and required for future workforce success. This belief is open to challenge.
If not “College for All,” then what?
A recent variant of “College for All” is “College and Career Ready.” Although the phrase sounds promising, definitions currently being supplied by many public advocacy organizations – and, indeed, by many within the U.S. Department of Education—are definitions of academic skills that mirror those associated with the College for All movement (e.g., high standards and expectations as the means recommended to prepare college-ready graduates). The implicit assumption of these definitions is that career-readiness comes with the same requirements. The evidence contradicts the rhetoric, however. Paul Barton at ETS, Peter Cappelli at the Wharton School, and other labor market experts argue that being prepared for college is not the same as being prepared for a successful transition into the workforce.
Further, these definitions ignore completely the fact that preparation for gainful employment can be obtained through high-quality career and technical education (CTE) programs. This is one of the messages contained in a recent report published by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). The report, titled Learning for Jobs, makes a persuasive case that vocational education (the label for CTE used in most of the world) has been neglected, and that strong programs at the secondary level contribute to economic competitiveness. The OECD report concludes that the United States offers secondary-level opportunities for career exploration but very few for career specialization that could lead to immediate employment. Among its many recommendations, the report argues for more public investment in CTE that teaches immediate jobs skills as well as solid preparation in numeracy and literacy. The latter provides the academic grounding students will need to move directly into employer-based training, without the need for remediation, while they can also continue their education when appropriate for their career pathway. The report also argues for additional preparation in the broader “soft skills” that build a foundation for lifelong learning, responsible citizenship, and career success. Finally, it recommends a pedagogic opportunity largely absent in the United States: high quality work-based learning.
Couple this study with many other recent reports from industry describing the skill shortages in middle-skill occupations or the sub-baccalaureate labor market (see 300 Best Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009), and you have a persuasive argument for expanding high-quality CTE programs that provide specialized skills valued by employers, coupled with the strong literacy and numeracy skills necessary for successful transition to a productive adulthood.