The economy is booming: Employment is at record-breaking levels, and income and wages are finally rising again. Yet something is missing. Despite all the positive economic news, a significant percent of Georgians (and Americans broadly) have been left behind.
This group of the economically lost and destitute is the subject of a new book called The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, written by Oren Cass, a think tanker and former advisor to Mitt Romney. Cass includes a number of viable solutions to America’s workforce woes in his book.
We know the unfortunate numbers: Even though gross domestic product tripled between 1975 and 2015, median wages haven’t budged. During that same time, government spending on the social safety net quadrupled. Even though our economy as a whole is more productive, many Americans haven’t seen a real rise in wages, while many others have fallen into the social-safety-net system.
This has created a type of society where many people have access to iPhones and other electronic devices once considered luxuries, but fewer and fewer have access to fruitful work, a good education, and a healthy family life. As Cass puts it, during the past few decades, “Cheap goods and plentiful transfer payments ensured that nearly all Americans could afford cable television and air conditioning, but not that they could build fulfilling lives around productive work, strong families, and healthy communities.”
Cass makes a number of recommendations to ameliorate the problem, several of which dovetail with policy prescriptions from the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO).
One of them is to emphasize alternative pathways to work aside from the traditional college route. The fact of the matter is that attempting universal college completion for all is an unrealistic goal—even though Millennials are the most college-educated generation in history, only 40 percent of them have college degrees. Looking across all generations now alive, the vast majority of Georgians lack a four-year (or higher) college degree. Doesn’t it make sense that we should tailor more training solutions to this majority?
For a solution, Cass suggests the reintroduction of “tracking” into our educational lexicon, where one pathway leads toward college enrollment and another “toward occupational training that leaves a twenty-year-old with serious work experience, a marketable skill, and $30,000 in a savings account.” That is a far more favorable outcome than the reality too often true for Millennials today: burdensome student loan debt with a college credential that increasingly lacks labor-market value. GCO invests in these types of pathways through our apprenticeships emphasis.
By now, you’ve probably seen the headlines and read the stories—America’s economy is booming. Just last month the national unemployment figures came in for May and the rate dipped to 3.8%—a level that ties a half-century low dating to 1969, and which economists consider to be “full employment.”
Equally encouraging is the fact that the current economic recovery is reaching communities that often lag behind. For example, the May unemployment rate for African-Americans hit an all-time low of 5.9%. For Hispanics, it was 4.9%—a tick up from its historic low of 4.8% in April. Here in Georgia the rate was also impressive by historical standards, with May unemployment dropping to 4.2%.
But with all of this good news comes some challenges. With our economy currently humming along at full employment, we’re facing tight labor markets and a demand for workers that outstrips supply. Even more concerning, we’re seeing a shrinking supply of the skilled labor needed to keep the economic engines firing on all cylinders.
So what’s the solution to producing a workforce with the needed skills to keep the economy on track? We believe the key is developing educational solutions that deliver a reliable pipeline of workers with appropriate skills to match the demands of a rapidly changing workforce moving into the second quarter of the 21st century.
For example, by the year 2025, 60% of jobs in Georgia will require post-secondary education, such as a graduate certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree. However, only about 47% of Georgia’s potential workforce currently meets these educational criteria, creating a need for 250,000 additional credentialed or degreed employment candidates by the year 2025.
Clearly, there’s a gap we must bridge between education and jobs. Even the federal government recognizes this critical need, with the Trump Administration recently announcing a proposal to combine the departments of Education and Labor.
Here in Georgia, the Georgia Center for Opportunity is taking the lead in creating opportunities for delivering quality education opportunities that meet fast-changing workforce needs. On July 27, we’re partnering with the Community Foundation for Northeast Georgia to host “Staying the Course in College”—a half-day community conversation at Gwinnett Technical College on the importance of completing college.
Please join us as we discuss two of the biggest economic threats facing Georgia today—improving access to affordable college and meeting workforce needs. Admission is free, but registration is required to attend. Click here for details.
In the coming decades, could so-called “middle skills” jobs be a key factor in reversing the contemporary epidemic of non-working males in the U.S.? There is reason to hope the answer is a resounding yes.
A phenomenon thoroughly documented by the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt and other scholars, an estimated seven million men in their prime working years of 25 to 54 years-old are absent from the U.S. labor force. Several factors tend to characterize these men: they are more likely to be minorities (particularly African-American), undereducated (no more than a high school diploma, and often less), and with a history in the criminal justice system. One attribute characterizes all of them—they are entirely disconnected from work. They’ve dropped out, unplugged, and given up on joining the labor force altogether.
Reasons for this are multifaceted, running the gamut from the challenges of obtaining work with a criminal record to addictions (alcohol and opioids particularly) to reliance on disability payments, family members, or government support to survive.
Closer to home in Georgia, this impactful map created by The New York Times shows where the non-working male problem is particularly bad, including areas where northward of 42% of these males are non-working, spanning Georgia’s larger metro areas to small rural regions.
Could middle-skills jobs be key to reducing this trend? It’s estimated that 29 million middle-skills jobs exist in the US today—40 percent of them with annual salaries in excess of $50,000 (for more, download this PDF). These jobs require less than a bachelor’s degree but more than a high-school diploma, making shorter-term training programs and credentials—such as associate degrees, certificates, and apprenticeships—an ideal option. Click here for more on the demand for middle skills jobs in Georgia.
There are a number of reasons to hope that we can achieve some success by placing more emphasis on these types of alternatives:
- Offering guided training pathways that lead to a workforce-ready credential will give non-working men a greater motivation to engage, compared to the six (or more) years needed to finish a typical bachelor’s degree.
- Offering “stackable credentials” that allow students to gradually and sequentially build their skillset over a period of time will allow these men to quickly see progress and ROI in their training journey.
- Building condensed and accelerated training schedules would empower men to finish what they start and improve graduation rates at community colleges and other training programs.
The Georgia Center for Opportunity is committed to making these kinds of opportunities available for all Georgians through our College and Career Pathways Initiative.
Some things in life are guaranteed: death, taxes, and left-leaning professors in the ivory tower. Proof? The percentage of professors identifying as “far-left” increased from 42 percent in 1990 to 60 percent in 2014, according to UCLA researchers. Another study published last year found that professors who are registered as Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 12 to 1. At Harvard, 84 percent of the faculty’s political contributions went to Democrats. The College Fix reports that the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 17 departments have no professors registered as Republicans—zero.
As featured recently in the AJC, an Iowa lawmaker proposed legislation that would require universities to balance the number of Republican and Democrat-professing professors that schools hire. A bill so narrowly focused on universities’ employment practices leaves room—as well-intentioned legislation often does—for unintended consequences. Based on the polling above, there may not be enough professors on the right of the political isle to fill such a quota.
Lawmakers in Iowa—and Georgia—should consider a more fundamental issue: Protecting free speech on campus, no matter where you place yourself on the ideological spectrum. Disagree with many people in class? Engage in debate and discover the power of ideas and value of persuasion. So far this year, lawmakers in at least four states are considering resolutions or legislation that protects free speech on campus (Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and Illinois). The new bills are modeled after Campus Free Speech: A Legislative Proposal by Stanley Kurtz from the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Jim Manley and myself from the Goldwater Institute.
The model legislation takes a comprehensive approach to protecting free expression on public college and university campuses. The bill prevents universities from designating so-called campus “free speech zones,” which actually limit what you can say and where you can say it. The bill allows individuals to speak and act freely on college grounds, as long as they do not interfere with others’ ability to do so. The bill also requires public universities to adopt mission statements in favor of free speech and make sure this material is available to existing and prospective students and faculty. Schools will be required to release an annual report on the condition of free speech on campus.
Colleges should be neutral on the issues and provide space for students and faculty to debate. Once students have left the college bubble, they are destined to encounter people with different opinions. Getting along and working peaceably with—and yes, when the time comes, even amicably disagreeing with—such people is a part of adulthood. No better time to practice these skills than when in college.