WASHINGTON – As tough as the current U.S. job market is, things could get even tougher in the future without the right kind of education and training, according to speakers at an April 30 symposium in Washington on “The Future of American Jobs.”
The nation is “polarizing” toward two kinds of jobs, according to MIT economics professor David Astor. One group is relatively high-skill, high-wage jobs, and the other group is low-skill, low-wage jobs.
The resulting erosion of the U.S. middle class cuts into the notion of the country being a meritocracy, “which is the closest thing we have to a national religion,” Astor said while presenting his findings.
While the current U.S. unemployment rate hovers just shy of 10 percent, long-term trends are even more troubling, according to John Koval, a senior research fellow at the University of Notre Dame who directs the university’s Chicago-based Institute for Latino Studies.
The coming workforce, Koval said twice when addressing separate panels during the symposium, will be majority-minority, with Hispanics and African-Americans making up more than half of those seeking work.
In 11 Southern states already, Koval told Catholic News Service, the student body in the primary and secondary grades are majority-minority. He predicted that the trend will encompass the entire United States by 2020.
Taken together, these groups have historically underperformed compared with their white counterparts in test scores, dropped out of high school at a higher rate, have higher unemployment rates and earn less throughout their working lives, Koval said.
His question: “What are we going to do for them?”
Astor said the minimum wage was “not unimportant” but had been rendered less effective over the past generation since someone making the minimum wage needs additional income to support himself or herself.
He also suggested “reinvigorating” the community college system to help young people without the desire to earn a four-year university degree gain the skills sought by a changing job market.
Education was seen as a key even in the current jobs crisis.
Heather Boushey, a senior economist for the Center for American Progress, which sponsored the symposium, said support for higher education is a must. Direct support is also needed for parents of young children who need job training, she added. “The college student can get a job. The toddler probably cannot,” Boushey said.
Cecilia Rouse, a member of the President’s Council on Economic Advisers, made her pitch for early childhood education. “Even at age 40 we are still seeing positive impacts from a high-quality preschool,” she said.
AFL-CIO chief economist Ron Blackwell noted how the GI Bill “helped absorb the military workforce coming back from World War II,” staving off pre-war unemployment rates while boosting the education and skill levels of an entire generation.
But “you can’t have a world-class workforce without a world-class infrastructure,” Blackwell said, adding that $3.3 trillion could be spent on national infrastructure needs.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that even sanitation workers in his city must have a high school diploma if they want a job collecting trash in the Big Apple.
“We need more immigrants, not less,” Bloomberg said. “You’re not going to have a job if you don’t start a business.” He added that immigrants are “very entrepreneurial” until they assimilate into the rest of the U.S. population and “regress toward the rest of us by being average,” he said to laughter.
Bloomberg proposed giving a green card to any immigrant who starts a business and employs at least 10 people.
“This is a troubling and defining problem for our society,” said former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, now director of the National Economic Council. He said the moves made by Congress and the federal government starting in late 2008 to arrest the financial collapse did what they were intended to do.”This was a much closer brush with Armageddon than we typically see,” Summers added.
Without it, Blackwell said, the economy “would have taken us from a recession to the next Great Depression.”
Summers alluded to one indicator of lingering high unemployment: “Calls to national domestic violence hot lines are up 50 percent over the last year,” he said.
“Losing a job is second only to losing a spouse, and for many it’s even more traumatic,” he said.