Innovating To Strengthen Youth Employment

Posted by on October 22, 2013

Our guest author today is Stan Litow, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs at IBM, President of the IBM Foundation, and a member of the Shanker Institute’s board of directors. This essay was originally published in innovations, an MIT press journal.

The financial crisis of 2008 exposed serious weaknesses in the world’s economic infrastructure. As a former aide to a mayor of New York and as deputy chancellor of the New York City Public Schools (the largest public school system in the United States), my chief concern—and a significant concern to IBM and other companies interested in global economic stability—has been the impact of global economic forces on youth employment.

Across the United States and around the world, youth unemployment is a staggering problem, and one that is difficult to gauge with precision. One factor that makes it difficult to judge accurately is that many members of the youth population have yet to enter the workforce, making it hard to count those who are unable to get jobs. What we do know is that the scope of the problem is overwhelming. Youth unemployment in countries such as Greece and Spain is estimated at over 50 percent, while in the United States the rate may be 20 percent, 30 percent, or higher in some cities and states. Why is this problem so daunting? Why does it persist? And, most important, how can communities, educators, and employers work together to address it? Read More »


Why Do So Many Workers Have Bad Jobs?

Posted by on October 9, 2013

About one in five American workers today have jobs that offer low wages, poor benefits and few opportunities for advancement. But what can you do, right? After all, don’t we know that what’s good for business is often not good for people?

Not really, argues Zeynep Ton, an adjunct associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in this recent article. Although the conventional wisdom is that companies have no choice but to pay their employees poorly to remain competitive, Ton’s research suggests the opposite is true: When companies invest in their workforce, everybody wins.

Ton studied the practices of four highly regarded retailers – Mercadona*, QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco – and found that “highly successful retail chains not only invest heavily in store employees but also have the lowest prices in their industries, solid financial performance, and better customer service than their competitors.” Indeed, low wages are “not a cost-driven necessity but a choice.” Her analysis suggest that one key to breaking the perceived trade-off is “a combination of investment in the workforce and operational practices that benefit employees, customers, and the company.” Read More »


A New Twist On The Skills “Blame Game”

Posted by on February 7, 2013

It is conventional wisdom that the United States is suffering from a severe skills shortage, for which low-performing public schools and inadequate teachers must shoulder part of the blame (see here and here, for example).  Employers complain that they cannot fill open slots because there are no Americans skilled enough to fill them, while pundits and policymakers – President Barack Obama and Bill Gates, among them – respond by pushing for unproven school reform proposals, in a desperate effort to rebuild American economic competitiveness.

But, what if these assumptions are all wrong?

What if the deficiencies of our educational system have little to do with our current competitiveness woes? A fascinating new book by Peter Cappelli, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It , builds a strong case that common business practices – failure to invest adequately in on-the-job training, offering noncompetitive wages and benefits, and relying on poorly designed computer algorithms to screen applicants –are to blame, not failed schools or poorly prepared applicants. Read More »


That’s Not Teacher-Like

Posted by on September 24, 2012

I’ve been reading Albert Shanker’s “The Power of Ideas: Al In His Own Words,” the American Educator’s compendium of Al’s speeches and columns, published posthumously in 1997. What an enjoyable, witty and informative collection of essays.

Two columns especially caught my attention: “That’s Very Unprofessional Mr. Shanker!” and “Does Pavarotti Need to File an Aria Plan” – where Al discusses expectations for (and treatment of) teachers. They made me reflect, yet again, on whether perceptions of teacher professionalism might be gendered. In other words, when society thinks of the attributes of a professional teacher, might we unconsciously be thinking of women teachers? And, if so, why might this be important?

In “That’s Very Unprofessional, Mr. Shanker!” Al writes: Read More »


“We Need Teachers, Not Computers”

Posted by on September 17, 2012

I’ve been noticing for a while that a lot of articles about education technology have a similar ring to them: “Must Have Apps for K12 Educators,” “What Every Teacher Should Know About Using iPads in the Classroom,” “The Best 50 Education Technology Resources for Teachers.” You get the drift.

This type of headline suggests that educators are the ones in need of schooling when it comes to technology, while the articles themselves often portray students as technology natives, naturally gifted at all things digital. One almost gets the impression that, when it comes to technology, students should be teaching their teachers.

But maybe my perception is skewed. After all, a portion of the education news I read “comes to me” via Zite, Flipboard and other news aggregators. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that that these types of software applications have a bias toward certain types of technology-centered stories which may not be representative of the broader education technology press.

So, is it me, or is it true that the media sometimes sees educators as a bunch of technological neophytes, while seeing students as technological whizzes from whom teachers must learn? And, if true, is this particular to the field of education or is something similar seen in regard to professionals in other fields? Read More »


College For All; Good Jobs For A Few?

Posted by on August 21, 2012

A recent study by the Center for Policy Research (CEPR) asks the question that must be on the minds of college grads, now working as coffee shop baristas: “Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?” The answer: swallowed by corporate profits and the personal portfolios of the ultrawealthy.

Despite the fact that the American economy has experienced “enormous” productivity gains since the late 1970’s, the study finds that the number of “good jobs” (defined as those paying at least $37,000 per year, with employer-provided health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan) has declined from 27.4 percent in 1979 to 24.6 percent in 2010.  This discouraging trend was strong even before the onset of the country’s economic crisis: in 2007, the year before the onset of the recession, only 25 percent of college grads had “good jobs.”

CEPR notes that the prevailing explanations for the failure to share productivity gains are “technology” and lack of necessary skills among American workers. But, if this were true, the CEPR study argues, one would expect college grads to have a higher share of good jobs than they did 30 years ago. They don’t. Instead, at every age level, today’s college grads are less likely to have a “good job” than their 1970s counterparts. This is especially surprising, the researchers note, since twice as many Americans now have advanced degrees as compared to the 1970’s. Read More »


Investing In Children = Supporting Their Families

Posted by on August 2, 2012

Although some parents are better positioned than others to meet their families’ child care needs, very few parents are immune to the challenges of balancing work and family. Adding further stress to families is the fact that single-parent households are at a record high in the U.S., with more than 40 percent of births happening outside of marriage. Paid parental leave and quality early childhood education (ECE) are two important policies that can assist parents in this regard. In the United States, however, both are less comprehensive and less equally distributed than in most other developed nations.

As a recent (and excellent) Forbes piece points out, we have two alternatives: hope that difficult family circumstances reverse themselves, or support policies such as paid parental leave and universal early childhood education and care — policies which would make it much easier for all parents to raise children, be it as a couple or on their own. So, what’s it going to be?

In 2010, a global survey on paid leave and other workplace benefits directed by Dr. Jody Heymann (McGill University) and Dr. Alison Earle (Northeastern University) found that the U.S. is one of four* countries in the world without a national law guaranteeing paid leave for parents.** The other three nations are Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. Some might see this as evidence of American “exceptionalism,” but what a 2011 Human Rights Watch report finds exceptional is the degree to which the nation is “Failing Its Families.” In fact, according to a survey of registered voters cited in the report, 76 percent of Americans said they would endorse laws that provide paid leave for family care and childbirth. Yet, it is still the case in the U.S. that parental leave, when available at all, is usually brief and unpaid. Read More »


Mind The Gap

Posted by on June 20, 2012

We have been engaged in decades-long public policy debates on gaps and how best to close them: the income gap, the student achievement gap, gender-linked gaps in employment opportunities. But why do we care so much about gaps? In a land of diversity, why are subgroup differences such a concern?

At a basic level, we care about gaps because (or when) our fundamental assumption is that, on a “level playing field,” there should be no systematic differences among people based on ascribed traits, such as race and gender, that are unrelated to the “game.” It is “ok” if a specific Hispanic kid performs at a lower level than his/her white counterpart or vice-versa. But it’s not ok if, on average, Hispanic students’ test scores systematically lag behind that of similar white children. Why? Because we know intelligence and ability are normally distributed across racial/ethnic groups. So, when groups differ in important outcomes, we know that this “distance” is indicative of other problems.

What problems exactly? That is a more complex question. Read More »


Pay Equity In Higher Education

Posted by on March 30, 2012

Blatant forms of discrimination against women in academia have diminished since the Equal Pay Act and Title IX became law in 1964 and 1972, respectively. Yet gender differences in salary, tenure status, and leadership roles still persist among men and women in higher education. In particular, wage differences among male and female professors have not been fully explained, even when productivity, teaching experience, institutional size and prestige, disciplinary fields, type of appointment, and family-related responsibilities are controlled for statistically (see here).

Scholars have argued that the “unexplained” gender wage gap is a function of less easily quantifiable (supply-type) factors, such as preferences and career aspirations, professional networks, etc. In fact, there is extensive evidence that both supply-side (e.g., career choices) and demand-side factors (e.g., employer discrimination) are shaped by broadly shared (often implicit) schemas about what men and women can and should do (a.k.a. descriptive and prescriptive gender stereotypes – see here)

Regardless of the causes, which are clearly complex and multi-faceted, the fact remains that the salary advantage held by male faculty over female faculty exists across institutions and has changed very little over the past twenty-five years (see here). How big is this gap, exactly? Read More »


An Uncertain Time For One In Five Female Workers

Posted by on March 26, 2012

It’s well-known that patterns of occupational sex segregation in the labor market – the degree to which men and women are concentrated in certain occupations – have changed quite a bit over the past few decades, along with the rise of female labor force participation.

Nevertheless, this phenomenon is still a persistent feature of the U.S. labor market (and those in other nations as well). There are many reasons for this, institutional, cultural and historical. But it’s interesting to take a quick look at a few specific groups, as there are implications in our current policy environment.

The simple graph below presents the proportion of all working men and women that fall into three different occupational groups. The data are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they apply to 2011. Read More »


Apprenticeships: A Rigorous And Tested Training Model For Workers And Management

Posted by on March 1, 2012

Our guest author today is Robert I. Lerman, Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute and Professor of Economics at American University. Professor Lerman conducts research and policy analyses on employment, income support and youth development, especially as they affect low-income populations. He served on the National Academy of Sciences panel examining the U.S. post-secondary education and training system for the workplace.

In a recent Washington Post article, Peter Whoriskey points out the striking paradox of serious worker shortages at a time of high unemployment.  His analysis is one of many indicating the difficulties faced by manufacturing firms in hiring enough workers with adequate occupational skills.  As a result, many firms are having serious problems meeting the demand for their products, putting on long shifts, and turning down orders.

The article cites a survey of manufacturers indicating that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled.  The skilled jobs going begging include machinists, welders, and machine operators — jobs that pay good wages.  So what happened? Read More »


The False Conflict Between Unionism and Professionalism

Posted by on November 8, 2011

Some people have the unfortunate idea that unionism is somehow antithetical to or incompatible with being a professional. This notion is particularly salient within education circles, where phrases like “treat teachers like professionals” are often used as implicit arguments against policies associated with unions, such as salary schedules and tenure (examples here, here, here and here).

Let’s take a quick look at this “conflict,” first by examining union membership rates among professionals versus workers in other types of occupations. As shown in the graph below, if union membership and professionalism don’t mix, we have a little problem: Almost one in five professionals is a union member. Actually, union membership is higher among professionals than among any other major occupational category except construction workers. Read More »


The High Cost Of Caring

Posted by on May 25, 2011

The field of early childhood education (ECE) is riddled with contradictions. Bluntly, when those we love the most—our children—are at the most consequential stage of their cognitive, social, and emotional development, we leave them in the hands of the people we pay the least. According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, childcare workers earn about 4 percent less than animal caretakers—$20,940 and $21,830 per year, respectively.

I am far from the first to make this embarrassing comparison; more than a decade ago, Marci Whitebook provided an extensive overview. Unfortunately, the comparisons still hold.

Over the intervening years, there have been many determined efforts to regulate and improve the working conditions of early childhood educators, including raising the qualifications and wages for the profession. Indeed, the demand for worthy salaries is often discussed in combination with workforce development efforts. In other words, we want early childhood workers to be both better trained and better paid. While this may seem to be a perfectly reasonable approach, it suggests that the low wages are a result of inadequate qualifications. Perhaps. But I believe that this obscures another important explanation for these workers’ persistently meager pay. Read More »


Are Teachers Driving The Public/Private Sector Earnings Gap?

Posted by on April 4, 2011

A great deal of the debate surrounding public sector unions focus on how much public employees earn versus private workers. Every credible analysis – those that account for huge differences between public and private workers in terms of characteristics like profession, education, and experience – find that public compensation is competitive or lower than that of private-sector workers (for recent examples, see here, here, and here, or a review here).

I have, however, heard a few thoughtful observers make the point that virtually all these analyses include education workers, and that this might be a little misleading. It’s a fair point. Roughly one in five state/local government employees are in fact K-12 teachers, while another five percent are professors at public colleges and universities. This is important because analyses of public/private sector compensation essentially compare public employees with workers with similar characteristics (education being the most important one) in the private sector. The research above indicates that workers with more education pay a larger “price” for working in the public sector, whereas many lesser credentialed, lower-skilled government jobs actually pay more. Since many teachers have master’s degrees (and professors Ph.D.’s), and they are such a huge group, it’s reasonable to wonder if they might be skewing the overall estimates.

So, I decided to see if a comparison of public/private compensation that does not include teachers and professors would yield very different results. Let’s take a look. Read More »


How To Make A Misleading Public/Private Earnings Gap Disappear

Posted by on March 5, 2011

USA Today last week published yet another story claiming that public sector workers make more that their private sector counterparts – this one saying that Wisconsin is one of many states where this is the case. Their “analysis” used data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and compared total compensation (salary+benefits) between workers in the private sector and state/local government.

No matter how many times they are told that you can’t just make a straight comparison of dissimilar groups of workers, apparently they still don’t get it. Incredibly, this particular article admits as much, and even quotes economist Jeffrey Keefe, who tells them that the gross comparisons don’t account for important sectoral differences in education and other factors. In other words, their numbers don’t tell us much of anything about public versus private sector compensation. Still, there is the headline: “Wisconsin one of 41 states where public workers earn more.” How many people saw that headline, and now believe that public workers are “overpaid?”

USA Today, of course, is not alone. These assertions have lately become insidious, coming from governors, commentators, and others. But when a major national newspaper decides to run this story at this politically-charged time, based on their very own “analysis,” a separate response seems in order.

I’ve discussed this issue before, but maybe it would be more helpful to show how the data are more properly analyzed in a step-by-step fashion, using 2009 U.S. Census microdata (the American Community Survey, available from the wonderful organization IPUMS.org). Here’s how you make a false earnings gap disappear in five minutes. Read More »


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