Today, the Center for American Progress and the Hamilton Project held a conference to flesh out why our current labor market is in the dismal shape that it is, and where the market is headed in the the near and not-so-near future. The conference was held in conjunction with the release of a paper by MIT economist David Autor which shows that our labor market is becoming problematically polarized — there are jobs at the top of the income scale and the bottom, but nothing substantial in the middle.
As Autor put it, “the structure of job opportunities in the United States has sharply polarized over the past two decades, with expanding job opportunities in both high-skill, high-wage occupations and low-skill, low wage occupations, coupled with contracting opportunities in middle-wage, middle-skill white-collar and blue-collar jobs.” This is a vexing problem, but the conference participants (and Autor himself) seemed to coalesce around the notion that one solution is creating an education system that doesn’t produce graduates who don’t have the skills to compete for middle class jobs.
It’s no secret that educational attainment in the U.S. has been stagnant for decades, with the U.S. falling out of the top ten internationally with regard to the number of 25-34 year olds obtaining a college degree. Council of Economic Advisers Member Cecilia Rouse said that, in terms of education, “we need a more comprehensive system.” “It’s very important that we have these systems be more coherent,” she said.” It has to be, when you graduate from high school, you have those competencies [for higher educaton].” I caught up with Rouse after her panel, where I asked her if making the system more “coherent” entails a cultural change or a better use of resources and investments:
First of all, you have to decide and get everybody talking together, so that the Pre-K teachers know what skills the kids need for elementary school, the elementary school kids’ teachers understand exactly what the middle school teachers are going to be teaching the kids, so they know how to prepare them and on up the chain.…So it’s a harder bit of work, it’s going to be a cultural change, it’s going to be making different connections for the secondary school folks to be talking to the post-secondary institutions. In our country, they’re run by two different groups of people…It’s going to be a funding issue because it takes resources to make that happen.
Even that, of course, won’t solve the whole problem, as we still have an issue with higher education prices that are spiraling out of control. As National Economic Council Director Larry Summers told the conference, “the dumbest rich kids are far more likely to go to college than the smartest poor kids. We have a major problem with education opportunity.”