Michael Hicks is the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics and the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.
Indiana is once again in the midst of adjusting human capital policy, this time focusing on high school graduation requirements. If media reports are correct, a committee is considering adding such things as a welding certificate, college acceptance or military enlistment to the existing requirements of graduation. While I personally commend young people try all of these paths, I think this effort might be missing the point about the strengths and ills of public education.
Indiana is not alone in its need to face the challenge, and one column is too small a place to address the many problems arising from unequal and too often inadequate schooling. So, I will focus on just one role of schools: their role in preparing young people for employment. This is by no means the most important thing schools do. Indeed "job readiness" attracts too much attention, perhaps because it is easy to conflate the ‘job readiness’ of graduates with the many more important economy-wide effects of schools. Maybe it is the hue and cry of businesses who are dissatisfied with the employment pool of new graduates. But, whatever the cause of this focus, I think it is risks dangerous short-sightedness. Let me explain.
Public education is expensive, typically well over $125,000 in total for a K-12 experience. For many kids, this is also the last time schooling will address the most critical issues of citizenship and broad learning. I would simply note that more adults work than vote, so whatever shortfalls we perceive in the preparation of students for labor markets just might not be our most pressing public concern.
Moreover, most kids go to on to additional schooling after high school, though only roughly nine in 10 actually graduate high school. A tad bit over half start college, and about half of those graduate. I count military volunteers in this category because most receive college credit for training performed in the course of an enlistment. The remainder, say four out of 10 kids, receive either industry training, perhaps resulting in a certificate, or nothing formal after high school. The problem arises in judging just what we might need, and what sorts of education might best prepare students, not just for that first job, but also for life. Let me explain.
Indiana bases much of its 10-year human capital policy on the need to train and attract 1 million new and replacement workers. That’s not an unreasonable estimate given the employment history over the past few decades, but maybe 60 percent of those projected jobs are at considerable risk for automation and offshoring over the next decade. This offers a real challenge, even those all these jobs won’t be eliminated.
In fact, it is likely that there’ll be greater demand for labor created by productivity gains. The problem is they won’t be in the same places, and certainly won’t require the same skills as the current forecast suggests. Moreover, the wrong policies could make labor markets perform worse, not better over the long run.
The past two decades have seen the erosion of jobs that have a heavy share of routine tasks associated with them. These jobs can be high-, middle- or low-skilled positions, based primarily on the cognitive share of the non-routine task. So, the risk of single-minded focus on credentialing, particularly in areas where the tasks are highly routinized (like welding, truck driving, or middle-skilled STEM fields), is that it may actually make long-term employment options worse. That should make us think more critically about the focus of K-12 education, which brings us back to the debate now underway in Indiana and elsewhere.
The skills learned in K-12 education matter a great deal, and much of the learning, or lack of it happens remarkably early. Ask any manufacturing HR manager about their mathematics test, and they’ll usually say that it comprises basic middle school subjects. Frequently, half of applicants fail these tests. Yet, it is precisely these skills; algebra for example, that are so very critical to preparing students for the type of flexible learning the future requires.
To put it another way, changes in labor markets mean that the skills students need over the long run are those that enable them to master non-routine cognitive tasks. These are nurtured in the very early years by course work that focuses on mathematics, the physical sciences, language, writing, social studies and literature and the arts. In contrast, routine tasks (cognitive or otherwise) have a short shelf life, and are susceptible to outsourcing and automation.
Welding and truck driving are nice skills to have today, but these are the buggywhip making and TV repair jobs of 2030. So, as we think through what we want of our K-12 or workforce investment spending, we’ll need to do a better job of thinking about the strategic benefits of education. We are a long way from doing that well.