The Great Recession that began in December 2007 hit America hard and exposed many of the shortcomings of our nation’s workforce. Now, a new study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, co-funded by Lumina Foundation, shows undereducated workers are increasingly being left behind and that policymakers, employers and institutions must do more to produce the skilled talent our nation needs to compete more effectively in the global economy.
The need for more educated workers has been growing for decades, but today’s labor market has become unforgiving for those without some form of postsecondary education. Nearly four out of every five jobs destroyed by the recent recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or less – and those workers have continued to lose jobs during the slow recovery.
By comparison, those with a Bachelor’s degree or better gained 187,000 jobs during the recession. And even though this group comprises just a little more than one third of the total labor force, these highly educated workers secured more than half of the jobs created in the recovery between January 2010 and February 2012. During that same period, people with a high school degree or less lost 230,000 jobs.
College-educated workers have also benefited from unemployment rates that have stayed low relative to those with only a high school diploma or less. Unemployment rates for new four-year college graduates peaked at 11.1 percent in July 2011 before declining to 6.8 percent in May 2012. Meanwhile, unemployment rates for new high school graduates peaked at 30 percent in January 2012 and were still at 24 percent in May of this year.
Much the same is true for underemployment. As of May 2012, one out of every seven new four-year college graduates was underemployed. By comparison, nearly half of all new high school graduates in America are currently suffering the effects of underemployment.
So, why have college-educated workers weathered the recession better than others? Part of the reason is the long-term decline in low-skill jobs in the American economy resulting from advances in labor saving technology. Technological changes, principally computing technology, supercharged by global competition, have been automating repetitive tasks and routines in all jobs.
The result is increased demand for hard cognitive knowledge, skills and abilities, as well as softer interpersonal skills and personality traits. In the American institutional context, this has meant a shift to jobs that require at least some education beyond high school.
This shift is making better-educated workers even more valuable. We have known for some time that if you go to college, you make more money. But, what is less recognized is that the wage differential is growing between those with and without postsecondary education. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree now make an average of 84 percent more over their lifetimes than those with just a high school diploma. This is an increase even since the late 1990s, when the wage premium was about 75 percent.
Yet, with all of this data demonstrating the advantages of postsecondary education, we find ourselves at a critical moment in time where it has become commonplace to question the value of a college degree. This national discussion is happening as millions of students prepare to resume fall semester classes and as we get ready to engage in a series of political conventions and debates that will lead up to us electing the next President of the United States.
So, the question in front of policymakers, employers and institutions is, “what are we going to do about this?” The issues of college affordability and rising student debt are real and they must be addressed head on. We have reached a critical crossroads when it comes to funding higher education in this country and what we have always done just isn’t working anymore.
It’s time for a thoughtful redesign of the postsecondary system and how we fund it. And the path forward must be student centered and focused on the ever-growing number of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students across America.
The Great Recession that began in December 2007 exposed our need for a more educated workforce and a new system that can deliver it. If we intend to compete in the global economy, we must find a way to train more workers for skilled jobs. It’s perhaps the most serious challenge that we face as a nation and it’s time for policymakers to take notice.