Economist: Too many high school and college grads only equipped to serve coffee

Without sophisticated skills, many high school and even college graduates lack the ability to do many jobs beyond restaurant serving.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1. You can read another Get Schooled piece by him here.

Peter Morici

For most Americans, wages are not rising fast enough. That’s been blamed for holding back economic growth and that’s patently false.

According to the liberal narrative, businesses are too tight-fisted and exploiting ordinary workers and women. Simply mandating higher pay — for example, by raising the minimum wage and adopting a national variant of California’s Fair Pay Act — will miraculously increase family incomes, spending and growth.

For those strategies to succeed, either worker productivity would have to miraculously increase with wages, or we would get a lot of inflation and very little progress advancing the wellbeing of the typical family.

The more fundamental problem is American workers increasingly don’t have the skills to work in the new digital economy.

Over the last 30 years, two broad groups of occupations have grown rapidly — knowledge-based work and those doing non-routine manual work in the many services industries.

The former include professional, managerial and technical workers including those requiring a college degree like engineers and investment banking, and those in technical fields requiring a year or two of post-high school training in manufacturing, health care and the like.

The latter group includes folks like waiters in upscale restaurants, sales personnel and seamstresses in high-end clothing stores and hairdressers.

As the information economy has grown and Americans can increasingly sell what they know throughout the world, the demand for and incomes of the first group have grown rapidly. Those folks live well by visiting expensive restaurants and resorts, wearing designer clothes and accessories, and pampering themselves with expensive personal services.

The workers taking it on the chin and seeing employment disappear or grow slowly have been those in between — those doing repetitive assembly work at factories and the army of bookkeepers, filing clerks, bank tellers and the like. Those occupations do not require a high level of knowledge or sophisticated training but rather merely the weakness of mind to do boring repetitive work.

Whereas a high school graduate on an academic, non-vocational track could once earn a decent living, ever more sophisticated machines and software and competition from cheap labor in Asia have hammered down those occupations and the wages they pay.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are correct to target poorly conceived and badly enforced trade agreements. Undervalued currencies, subsidies and barriers to U.S. exports in Asia encourage more outsourcing — for example, those making auto parts, staffing call centers and performing routine basic legal research. However, the other fundamental problem is that too many young Americans do not get a decent education.

Fewer than half of all high school graduates possess the reading and quantitative skills needed to succeed at technical training programs or in college, and about 40 percent of all college graduates lack the critical thinking and reasoning skills to do managerial, professional or technical work.

Of the college graduates who can think, too many major in social sciences and humanities that provide little background to succeed in medicine, finance and the vast array of opportunities created by the digital economy.

Those folks — whether they went to college or not — are not prepared for much more than serving coffee at Starbucks.

The calculus of falling wages is simple—the majority of young people can do no more than perform repetitive tasks and, thanks to smarter machines and outsourcing, those jobs are shrinking or growing too slowly.

High schools don’t offer a lot of technical training opportunities and, thanks to political pressures to raise graduation rates, many are passing out diplomas to students who have not earned them. Similarly, university rankings systems place a premium on high graduation rates and passing out bogus degrees.

Fraud and wasted resources at America’s schools and universities are a big reason wages are sinking and growth is so slow.

 

Reader Comments 0

16 comments
Regibe Gsfjfkj
Regibe Gsfjfkj

They need to go to entrepreneurship school. College degrees no longer key to job market & financial success.

Deborah Levey
Deborah Levey

Sadly, this is true. There are many thousands of jobs going unfilled right now because they can't find qualified workers to fill them.

Nicole Stewart
Nicole Stewart

University of Cambridge economist: "To sum up, the free-trade, free-market policies are policies that have rarely, if ever, worked. Most of the rich countries did not use such policies when they were developing countries themselves, while these policies have slowed down growth and increased income inequality in the developing countries in the last three decades." Do Free Market Policies Lead to Economic Stagnation? http://prosperityforthepeople.typepad.com/blog/2011/11/cambridge-economist-free-market-policies-lead-to-lower-economic-growth.html

Nicole Stewart
Nicole Stewart

"With the market so much more in control of the global economy now than fifty years ago, then if economists are right, the world should he a manifestly better place: it should be growing faster, with more stability, and income should go to those who deserve it. Unfortunately, the world refuses to dance the expected tune. In particular, the final ten years of the 20th century were marked, not by tranquil growth, but by crises: the Japanese economic meltdown, the Long Term Capital Management crisis, the Russian crisis, the Mexican crisis, the Asian crisis, and many more." http://prosperityforthepeople.typepad.com/blog/2011/03/debunking-economics.html

redweather
redweather

Beginning in 1982, just after Saint Reagan was first elected President of the United States, worker productivity began to outpace worker compensation in this country by an ever-growing margin. But don't take my word for it. The U. S. Bureau of Labor has the statistics.  

Michael Cox
Michael Cox

well they are products of government run education after all. Hell, I have met a college grad from NYU who thought the civil war was in 1918 I kid you not. I have met college grads who majored in econ that never heard of Austrian Econ. History grads that could not give the dates of involvement of the Korean Conflict. Or that Scotland and Northern Ireland were countries in the United Kingdom or that German were at one time two countries. So yes our government run centers of education are failing us and wasting our tax dollars.

Chris Lacy
Chris Lacy

"the weakness of mind to do boring repetitive work." Really? Condesend much? Your writing is a waste of bandwidth.

Carlos_Castillo
Carlos_Castillo

For the first time, I voted against a public education SPLOST, today.  


From what I hear, school principals are telling teachers and teacher’s aides to use less discipline in schools that are close to being little Bedlams already.   The inmates run the asylums.


I see no point in injecting further funds into school systems where the senior administrators and school principals are so fearful of bad publicity under the current zeitgeist that they tell teachers to lay off trying to control the students.


Cameras like those now being distributed to the police I'd be willing to pay for, so that complaining 3rd parties will be forced to observe actual defiant behavior and what amounts to expensive baby sitting inside schools.


If some semblance of control can't be restored, then I think that we need to close all these ineffective education factories and rethink what k-12 education should look like from the ground up.  As Peter Morici has written, "Fewer than half of all high school graduates possess the reading and quantitative skills needed to succeed at technical training programs or in college, and about 40 percent of all college graduates lack the critical thinking and reasoning skills to do managerial, professional or technical work." 


If these places were businesses, then they'd be declared bankrupt.


The testing companies are complicit.  Giving the student an SAT score of, say, 380 on a normal curve may tell what percentage of those kids taking the test did better or worse, but it doesn't say: "You are testing at an 8th grade level in math and/or English ability."


That blunter assessment -- along with some advice on what to do next -- is what students need to hear.   If it were to happen, few public schools would purchase the tests.  Rioting parents are unpleasant.


A substantial percentage of students do not arrive at college knowing how to study, be on time or follow instructions because they've been able to float through high school without needing to.  Even in Atlanta's elite public high schools, many students have gotten by without ever doing homework at home, so they don't expect to study outside of class at college and encounter trouble doing so if they try. 


Most are blissfully unaware that "developing" countries are developing young adults who are already able to grab more and more of the better paid jobs requiring more skills from "developed countries" like the United States.  


Failing schools are trashing our national competitive advantage every year they are permitted remain in business.




Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Most folks are already doing the work of SEVERAL former workers.  They are being squeezed by low wages and the demands of their employers to step it up, or they are going to be fired.  They should "be glad to have a job!"  This economist has been out of the real world too long!

SomeGuy627
SomeGuy627

Another "More STEM majors, less liberal arts majors!" article from a guy working the rightist media circuit and pandering to the usual suspects? I might buy his "let's force students to major something they hate and will consequently flub" argument when he can tell us what specific STEM-related jobs will exist in 10 years. Otherwise, it's so much a "damn liberal professors, damn kids!" fist-shaking rehash. Moving on, then.

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

The outsource of repetitive jobs and and demand for skilled jobs is just part of being a highly industrialized nation. Has nothing to do with politics. As anyone gone to a redbox lately, there was a time where an entire store did just that.


Also universities have become a bit profit driven. They are more focused on churning out graduates who pay for the classes. But I do feel responsibility falls on the student.

Annette Laing
Annette Laing

What he doesn't explain is that America's elite get a top-notch liberal arts education (yes, the phrase "liberal arts" includes scence) in top prep schools, followed by further liberal arts education (and network building) in college, followed by pre-professional graduate work. Most public school kids who go to college get a brief taste of solid liberal arts education only in college. Those who go on to the greatest success are much more likely to have majored in the humanities than in, say, business: Georgia Southern boasts often of Hala Moddelmog, its alumna, but I don't recall them emphasizing that she majored in English. The article--by a business prof no less--ignores all these things. I wonder why. Could it be because middle- and working-class kids are supposed to know their places?