We’re Not All Rocket Scientists

May 19th, 2011 at 1:30 pm

There’s been a lot in the news lately about college education, including the tough job market facing new grads and whether the investment is worth it for kids and their families.

I went to college.  My kids will go to college.  And when I was working for the Obama administration, I was proud of the work we did on access to higher ed, which I view as a key mobility issue for kids from less advantaged families.

But at the same time, I often thought about numbers like those in the table below.  It’s the Bureau of Labor Statistics table of the 30 occupations expected to add the most jobs over the next decade.   What it shows is that most of these occupations are not the ones that demand the most skills.  Most of them don’t require a college education–they call for short or moderate-term training.

It’s true, as the table shows, that we’ll continue to need more computer geeks and surgeons–but we’ll need more home health aides, food prep workers, and security guards.  And we need to worry about the quality of these jobs and the well-being of the people in them too.

Now, lots of caveats to this observation.  These are NOT the occupations growing most quickly—those tend to have higher skill demands, but many are growing from a low base so they generate a big percent change.

And we should of course remain highly committed to access to college, for lots of reasons—whatever the distribution of employers’ skill demands, people should realize their academic potential.  Surely, a more highly educated society makes better choices.

But we also must be careful not to be so focused on college access (and completion, which is just as important) that we lose sight of the majority of our adult workforce that doesn’t have a college degree (about 70%) and the quality of jobs that many of them occupy.

Increasing the share of college grads is a key piece of  “winning the future,” but I also worry the present.

(If you find the table hard to read here, see link.)

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8 comments in reply to "We’re Not All Rocket Scientists"

  1. Kevin Rica says:

    The advantage of getting a degree is that it protects you from competition from wholesale illegal immigration. There is an unlimited supply of desperately poor people in the Third World willing to take cooking and cleaning jobs and they don’t even need to speak English.

    If the job at least requires literacy and fluent English, there is less competition.

    If the job requires some skills or college, you only have to compete with those coming here on H visas which allow employers to higher cheaper workers in order to cope with a non-existent or fraudulent “shortage of workers.”

    If you have really good qualification in a globally rare skill (like a licensed MD) there is less competition for scarce jobs.

    Best yet, even though it’s harder to get through Med school than law school, you need to study law in the U.S. and have near flawless English to practice law. So even the smartest Indian lawyer can’t just smuggle himself in and practice law. So you only have to compete against all the other law school graduates who were hoping that a law degree would get them the jobs that a BA didn’t get them.

    So the object is to have skills that foreigners can easily acquire.

    • Kevin Rica says:

      I see my own typo. The last line should read:

      So the object is to have skills that foreigners cannot easily acquire.

  2. hyperpolarizer says:

    The striking thing about the list of jobs is how many of them are low-wage, low-skill — in short crap jobs. If that is what the future of America looks like, we are in major trouble.

    Historically we as a nation have been one of the world’s workshops; but the only job I noted there involved with making actual stuff was that of carpenter, which is fine, but will not help the trade balance. What about electronics technicians, sheet-metal mechanics, radiofrequency hardware engineers, NC (numerically controlled) mill operators, welders, shipwrights (outside of military shipyards), semiconductor physicists, chem-lab technicians, steelworkers, aluminum smelters, green-energy turbine assemblers …? the list goes on. In short, what about jobs in which people actually *make things*.

    You can see where I am going with this. We need an industrial policy if we are not to become a second rate nation (and we are surely on the fast track to that.)

    This may be somewhat of a rant, but the issue is a burning one. Economists on the left have emphasized the need for jobs as a remedy for high deficits — i.e. more employment = more tax revenue = lower deficits. (I will leave out tax increases at this point, tho’ they are surely needed.)

    • beowulf says:

      Agreed. Paleo-conservative Paul Craig Roberts has been making the point for years that between illegal immigration and outsourcing/free trade, the only jobs being created are in non-tradable sectors (which as you say, tend to be crap jobs). There’s a new Council of Foreign Relations study on this topic,
      Looking back on the period from 1990 to 2008, the co-authors found that 97 percent of the 27.3 million U.S. jobs created were in the non-tradable sector… “The employment creation occurred mostly in non-tradable sectors — where we don’t have international competition…”

      The single most effective industrial policy would be eliminating our trade deficit, both to get tradable sectors hiring again and to fill the $500 billion a year aggregate demand leakage resulting from our trade gap. A few years ago, the Levy Institute reviewed Warren Buffett’s import certificate “cap and trade” proposal and suggested instead a fair trade tax cut; auctioning off import certificates and using the tariff revenue to cut payroll taxes by a third.

  3. tatere says:

    it’s a sign of how detached from real work people have become that they imagine that “skill” is the same as “college education”. if you think home health aides don’t need skills, i hope you never get seriously ill.

    college degrees signify nothing, they’re just used for winnowing candidate pools – for jobs, immigration, etc. it’s what a high school education used to suffice for. only now not only are the extra years of “education” required, but public subsidies for those extra years are being phased out. which means that for the average person, this is a class-based selection process.

    plus the bonus benefit that a large share of the people who do manage to scrape their way through that process come out of it with huge lifetime debts that can’t be escaped through bankruptcy. the people in control look at this system and think, we let you sell yourself to us and pay us for the privilege, what’s not to like?

  4. urban legend says:

    The critical thing is to build an unstoppable movement to get those occupations unionized. To that end, as Wisconsin has taught us, all unions and their members need to stick together to support the active efforts at various times — with picketing, money, calls and letters, boycotts of unscrupulous employers who fight their workers’ right to collective bargaining — including fighting with the so-called “legal” means dreamed up by the anti-union consultants, law firms and scab companies — and every other effective pressure effort that can be found.

    All hands need to be on-deck to make what are now minimum wage or low-paying but non-exportable jobs for often highly profitable companies into jobs that pay decent wages. Only by building the incomes of the middle class will we ever pull out of the current morass. One would think that everyone in the middle class, whose incomes are dragged down by low wages at the bottom, would get that. But too many are hypnotized by the BPN (the Billionaires Propaganda Network). Maybe someday the self-damaging spell will be broken.

  5. Tanya Roberts, MSW says:

    It is refreshing to “hear” someone finally say that yes, “We cannot all be rocket scientists”. Just dredge up memories of trash pickup strikes and we suddenly find that we do value these workers, too. Some of the most valuable roles in our society have the least respect and lowest financial compensation. It is imperative that we cultivate a balanced workforce and ensure that we always value people for the work they do and the people they are and not for the level of formal education they have or the amount of money they make. It takes a variety of people to make our communities work and inherent in this variety is a collaboration of the division of labor. Thank goodness!