Fixing the Job Skills Gap

The decline of American education standards over the last 50 years is not something that can be turned around overnight. However, as Alvin Toffler hinted already thirty years ago, in his book, Future Shock, this was the inevitable outcome, as education standards fell and technology rose. The truth is that the world-wide population of unemployable people is destined to continue increasing. This, along with the expansion of education in former undereducated countries such as China, will create tremendous pressure on any potential employee who allows him or herself to live with outdated ideas of what it takes to be employable.Future Shock

Certainly, there are millions of hungry people from countries outside the United States who clamor to relocate to America and fill the skilled laborer vacuum. There are also millions more who have crossed the border and filled low-skilled jobs that could help employ America’s less gifted. I believe that encouraging either of these trends to continue is a mistake.

First, America’s less-skilled workers must be utilized as well as possible. America must close its borders to illegal immigrants. Yes, immigrants do the jobs that Americans seem unwilling to do. But, this reality is created by the ease with which Americans are allowed to skate through the welfare system. The idea that any job is “beneath” someone comes from the idea that all Americans should be equal. The reality is that, while all are created equally, that is, start out equal, equality of outcome cannot be, and should not be, achieved, given that some acquire more marketable skills than others.

The answer to the immigration problem is not to allow illegal immigrants to supplant a lazy population that neither has the desire to work nor the desire to upgrade skills to a level where they would be satisfied with the wage compensations. If we really want to help those people, we will help their respective countries raise their own levels of economy to the point at which the desire to leave for greener pastures is diminished. In the meantime, it does no service to anyone to continue to subsidize illegals with benefits that should be reserved for lawful citizens.

There needs to be a recognition that, as the level of necessary skills for “middle class” income rises, more and more people are going to, by necessity, fall out of the middle class. For this reason, a focus must be made on tailoring our cost of living to meet the burgeoning under class. This means lowering taxes, reducing the high cost of everyday regulations and fees, such as driver and car licenses, property taxes, and other taxes and fees that take a much higher proportion of the income of the lower economic class. Although it is true that even the poorest American has a much higher annual income compared to other countries, it is also true that the base cost of living in America is exponentially higher than in other countries.

The high cost of living explains why illegal immigrants are the only people who can afford to fill low-paying occupations. For most of the American under class, it is impossible to survive the cost of being employed. Their only chance for survival is to ride on the back of the system. The illegal alien is able to survive because he does not have the oppressive tax liabilities that come with being a legally employed person. So, first order of business is to make it more enticing for low-skilled workers to work than to live on welfare.

As the world becomes a global market, we should also pay attention to how we affect other nations with our hiring practices. China, for instance, is suffering greatly from a “brain drain”. About one third of the students from China who matriculate in US universities decide, mostly for political reasons, that they are better off staying in America. This results in many highly-skilled American students losing out on good jobs. Also, as these are usually the brightest and best of the Chinese students, it means China is losing the future workers most likely to be able to pull it through the challenges of becoming a modern nation. (Those who do return are often the children of Communist Party Cadres who will be promoted more by nepotism than by demonstrated skill, which will only perpetuate China’s difficulty in moving toward a truly open market economy. This hurts China, and creates instability for Chinese investors.)

Certainly, lowering taxes and fees is part of the solution. But, just as importantly, we need to raise the standard of welfare eligibility. Too many people are in an either-or situation. Either they must make it entirely on their own, or they must stay on welfare. More emphasis needs to be directed at the middle ground. Certainly it is better to subsidize a low income which creates some productivity than it is to have to fully fund the dead weight of a citizen with no productivity. Consequently, except for the really and truly unemployable, all others should be required to do what they can.

For example, statistics show that 80% of current inmates in state penitentiaries are incarcerated because of a drug-related offense. Most of these people fall under the ADA act, making them a protected class. This is good, in the sense that most of them will face undue stigma when trying to re-integrate into society. However, the ADA designation also becomes a crutch for many of them, and they will end up forever stuck in the revolving door of either the welfare system or the justice system. Many of them will never be utilized even in low-income jobs. But, even more of a waste is that many have above average intelligence that could be trained to fill more advanced labor positions. Instead of allowing this underclass to grow and thrive, we should create a new system of corrections that aims at correction instead of merely treating everyone like a criminal.

Besides protecting our low-skilled work force from extinction, we also need to really address the task of raising education standards to the point where most people can meet the new skill requirements. It has been pointed out that eighth grade students of one hundred years ago had, on average, an education level equal to the average college graduate of today. In our haste to certify workers with college diplomas, we have dumbed down requirements instead of accepting the fact that not everyone is capable of reaching a high level of education. This has done a disservice to many. Foremost, it has handicapped employers with incompetent workers. Secondly, it has given a false sense of potential to those with less skill and education. And it has demeaned many of the trades who have lost a pool of skilled tradesmen who either would rather find a desk job through the college track or who can no longer apply their manual craftsmanship to meaningful employment because of their failure to qualify for degreed programs.

By raising the standard of elementary education closer to the levels of 100 years ago, we will be able, at a much younger age, to differentiate those students who show an aptitude for higher education in theoretical fields from those who should be applying their efforts in another direction. This will save many a family from the heart-ache of having poured a lot of hard-earned money down the tube of college tuition, only to have nothing to show for it in the end. It will also cause a rise in the number of much-needed tech schools to accommodate those no longer bound for college. It will also, to some degree, take the emphasis off college education, the demand for which has caused an untenable tuition bubble.

The question of declining birth rates points to the conscious efforts to discourage population through abortion and contraception. However, rates only decline among developed nations, while rates continue to be very high among less-developed nations. For the short term, we need to emphasize helping less-develop nations raise their education standards, so that the overflow of workers are able to be utilized by developed nations that have an immediate shortage in skilled labor. Also, helping other nations develop will probably create a downward trend in birth rates in those countries as well.

In our own country, declining birth rates are also tied to economic status. Setting aside the change in attitudes of the more affluent from family to career, it is true that the burgeoning under class is created by the cycle of poverty that is forced upon the children of large families of parents with limited education. Encouraging abortion and contraception among the poor are inefficient ways to deal with this problem, primarily because, without education, there is no understanding of the poverty cycle and no incentive to break the cycle. Therefore, education becomes doubly paramount to eliminating the underclass.

One of the main bottlenecks to education appears to be the education system itself. I believe that there needs to be an increasing acknowledgement and documentation of alternative education forms. By forcing children to validate their education only through traditional educational institutions, we are condemning many of them to the scrapheap of neglect. Many children might be better served on a one-to-one basis, using mentors. Others might do better in a self-paced program, which could be accomplished cheaply utilizing library computers or even by creating low-overhead self-study centers. By using education validation programs such as the GED program, many could receive credit for their work in a non-classroom setting. This might be especially helpful in areas where the very act of getting to a traditional school is a dangerous proposition, and in which environment it is highly discouraged to “throw off the curve” and make peers look bad in comparison.

Another way to improve the system is to give back the power to the teachers to enforce discipline. Watered-down methods of discipline have created an environment in which learning is often next to impossible. All the money and all the special programs in the world, as well as all the nicest buildings and extra-curricular programs, are meaningless to a student who can’t get a usable education. The content is more important than the appearance. Milwaukee Public Schools spent $1.3 billion last year. The result is that 16% of students are proficient in reading. I don’t think the answer lies in spending and additional $6.5 billion to assure the other five out of six can read.

By encouraging the parents to take responsibility as partners in the education process, the parents will feel more empowered and more invested in their children’s education. The village concept of raising children flies in the face of all recent studies that show that the biggest influence on high-functioning children is their parents. Yet many parents of underclass children feel overmatched by their own lack of education. However, we could tie economic incentives to raising the level of education of the parents and to their involvement in the education of their own children. The cost of these incentives could be offset by the greater employability of the parents, which will in turn lower the costs of welfare. Also, the parents’ involvement is necessary to reinforce the discipline of the teachers.

Although we may perceive some lack of skilled workers in the short run, I believe that long-term picture is more likely to see a surplus of workers as technology allows increasing productivity with fewer people. Therefore, I believe that raising the level of education world-wide is the only possible solution to the employment needs of tomorrow. It is imperative that we fix the education gap within our own borders. It is also imperative that we help bring less-developed countries up the same high standards of education. Then we will have a world with fewer, better-equipped people. Otherwise, the world will be overrun with unskilled, unhappy people—the stuff of revolutions.

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