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The politics of resentment won’t solve America’s real challenges

America’s real economic problem is too many bickering political candidates and not enough talent on the job. The presidential campaigns are assaulting the airwaves with a full helping of red meat for the base and each candidate’s special sauce for race and class resentment on the side. Soak the rich. Stop immigration. Raise the minimum wage.

It’s all good political theater delivered in context-free zones with quick and easy sound bites.  But the politics of resentment to the left and right of us will do little to help us prosper individually or as a nation.

{mosads}For those already tired of the presidential circus and starved for content, here is a fact that actually matters. In 1994 the U.S. was first in the world in college attainment. Today we don’t even make the top ten.

A new book, America Needs Talent, dissects this challenge and its implications for our economy and American workers, and it’s worth reading for anyone hungry to think about what’s at stake in America’s global future.

We are not facing a worker shortage, as the book’s author, Lumina Foundation President & CEO Jamie Merisotis, points out. Rather, we are facing a talent shortage. And Merisotis’ remedy is not the usual rant on K-12 failure. Instead, he proposes a positive agenda for cheaper, better and faster college degrees with demonstrable economic value. 

That’s a formula that’s increasingly critical, given the changing nature of the global economy. In the old industrial economy that peaked in the 1970s, two out of three workers had no more than a high school diploma, and the vast majority made middle-class wages. By 2025, two-thirds of all jobs will require at least some college education. And at current rates of attainment, there will be 23 million more jobs in 2025 than there will be qualified workers.

Put simply, the skills, knowledge and training needed for jobs of this century have increased significantly, and our country’s ability to train and educate workers has failed to keep pace. Moreover, our fragmented and nonsensical immigration policy stymies America’s ability to attract the essential global talent needed to bolster our human capital base.

All the while, our international competitors are upping their talent game by creating better postsecondary schools, pushing the needle on innovation, and embracing immigration policies that create incentives for the best and brightest to move to their shores.

If we’re going to avoid falling further behind globally, Merisotis contends, we must fix our $500 billion higher education system. Every year more than 400,000 graduates who test in the top half of their high school class give college a try. Yet when we check eight years later, they have neither a two- year nor a four-year degree. That’s compelling evidence of the system’s dysfunction.

The current business model of higher education, Merisotis argues, is unsustainable, and closer links must be forged to the career needs of students and the needs of employers who require employees who come to work ready to learn in an innovation-based economy. He recommends spreading and amplifying promising innovations that connect college to gainful employment and economically productive careers, such as measuring students’ progress based on their learning and employment outcomes, rather than time spent in the classroom.

With these changes, higher education could be the greatest point of leverage for addressing the talent gap and ushering in a second American century. Money separates the wealthiest 1 percent of society, but access to postsecondary learning explains much of the growing earnings disparity among the bottom 99 percent. Noted economists David Autor, Larry Katz and Claudia Golden all tell us that the differences in college access and success explains most of the growth in earnings differences since inequality began growing out of control in the early 1980s.  

Beyond its effectiveness as a tool to address our economic challenges, relying on education to distribute and redistribute opportunity is also good politics. Support for public investment in education has become the preferred “third way” in our politics, the common middle ground between those who favor an expansion in the welfare state and those who advocate laissez faire government.

These are the kinds of substantive conversations we need to be having about our economic future. The median household income, adjusted for inflation, has declined since the early 1990s.  Protectionism and a higher minimum wage are not going to resolve that. What will is recognizing talent, developing skills and abilities to enhance it, and appropriately rewarding it across society.

Carnevale is a research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.


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