Middle Skills

Joe Nocera has a thoughtful column, “Filling The Skills Gap,” at the NYT pointing out that about one third of American jobs are “middle-skill jobs” that require more than a high school degree, but less than a college degree.  He also points out that thirty years ago such jobs didn’t exist.

Nocera argues that we must put more resources into our community colleges — “Community colleges can be our salvation if only we let them.”

The whole “middle skills” job market argues not just for more young people going to two-year colleges, but also against so many people going to four-year colleges.  The recent battle over student loan rates accepts without question that more and more American kids should go on to four-year colleges and that we have to make it affordable.

But we are creating more college graduates than there are jobs for them.  Lots of these graduates are currently working (if they’re working at all) in jobs that a high school or community college graduate could do just fine.  They have incurred unnecessary debt getting that B. A.

Traditionally, college graduates earn more over their lifetimes than high school graduates and high school graduates earn more than drop-outs.  But with these “middle skill” jobs all that many college graduates will ever get, I believe that is going to change, and some college graduates will never achieve an earnings bonus that will justify their having earned a four-year degree.

But we have to re-think not just four-year colleges, but also high schools.  Nocera says put resources into community colleges.  I say put them into high schools and return the value of a high school diploma, so that we don’t need so many people going to community colleges.

To a large extent, community colleges are, as Gov. Mike Huckabee is fond of pointing out, taking high school classes at college prices.  Nocera himself notes that at Miami Dade College, tuition is $3,000 a year, and 60% of the students need “remedial classes,” which means stuff they should have learned in high school.

I believe the big push in education in this country should be to prepare students for a “middle skills” job with a high school diploma.  Students shouldn’t have to spend money and another two years at a community college to get the education that we used to provide with a solid high school program.  Employers shouldn’t have to demand a two or four-year degree for jobs that don’t really require it except for the fact that they know a high school diploma has become so devalued.

Parents need to focus on the marketable skills their children are getting, not the pieces of paper.