mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Saturday Reads On Jobs and Education

Related to our earlier post on the bifurcated job market, here are two Saturday reads for you to ponder:

1) Megan McArdle, writing in the Daily Beast last week, suggested that a kind of fundamental shift is underway in our society: “Skilled workers with higher degrees are increasingly ending up in lower-skilled jobs that don’t really require a degree–and in the process, they’re pushing unskilled workers out of the labor force altogether.”

2) An article in this weekend’s New York Times magazine, ostensibly about the town of Baiersbronn and its two Michelin three-star restaurants, serves as an unexpectedly good backgrounder on the German system of vocational training.

The dual-training system is evidence of the close cooperation between business, the state and workers that helps account for Germany’s success, both in niche industries and big multinational enterprises like Siemens and Mercedes. Vocational schools, usually offering a course of study lasting between two and three and a half years, are financed and run by the states. Would-be apprentices apply not to the schools but to businesses, which decide how many future employees they need to have trained. Some specialties have national academies: aspiring hearing-aid technicians go to Lübeck, for example; piano builders to Ludwigsburg.

We’re not sure that the explanation McArdle is highlighting is completely right—that the demand for high-skilled workers is falling off due to increased automation. (She admits herself that it’s a somewhat speculative thesis and based only on one study.) And we don’t think that the German system, with its intimate linkages between state and private sector, is going to find traction in the US any time soon.

Nevertheless, both articles gesture towards themes we often highlight here at VM: That our schools are failing to prepare the rising generation for the demands of the modern job market. And that a promising way forward is to reform our education system to be more about credentialing individuals with specific skills that employers want and less about attaining a generic diploma.

Any thoughts from our readership? Have at it in the comments.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    Given the growth, or lack thereof, of the job market isn’t it self-evident that the requirement for degrees in jobs that don’t need post-secondary education is pushing the less qualified (not less skilled!) out of jobs. The puzzle of why 55+ employment is growing at the expense of all other cohorts remains.

    • Jim Luebke

      Perhaps people who were educated by the school system of 40 years ago were better prepared for jobs than any who came after?

  • Felipe Pait

    The argument seems a variation of what economists call the “lump of labor fallacy”. To see why it doesn’t explain much, consider that, if automation in the past two hundred years had reduced the demand for labor, then very few people would have jobs nowadays.

    That said, the pace of change requires workers to be flexible. Anyone who hopes to receive a diploma with all the skills needed to perform a job will have trouble holding a good one.

  • Anthony

    Institutional reset comes to mind WRM. Moreover, sustained economic growth (by implication job growth and opportunity) requires under capitalist markets (as those in West) innovation which infers creative destruction; innovation cannot be decoupled from creative destruction which replaces the old with the new in the economic system. Since 2008 (actually decades before) our economic and by implication employment opportunities have transformed. Yet, our national appreciation of disruption has been neither forthrightly nor publicly discussed vis-a-vis existing educational, political, and economic balance; that is, a discussion about major institutional change has been generally invisible. Fundamental shifts in income distribution, employment, and opportunities have been massive (transformational).
    We have a paradigm shift (or critical juncture) WRM and find ourselves unable to honestly spot weaknesses in our ruling paradigm; we just may need different skills and different attitudes as the trends are smacking us in the face.
    Where, where does the interest of the broad public lie.

    • D’Loye Swift

      Ok, but what does this “vagueness”, your institutional reset mean precisely? Education institutions are hotbeds of “reform.” But who controls what changes happen and at what pace? “Institutional reset” sounds like another trojan horse type gift from our oh so knowing “betters.”

      I was talking to teachers today. No surprise. They’re ready to act en mass pitch Jindal’s reforms here in LA.

      As an ex-educator, I’ve lived through a huge number of reforms… you know, the ones that last until it’s time to do some honest assessment and decide whether the new program actually accomplished something or just made a nice budget item and good copy in the local scandal sheet.

      Every K-12 reform has multiple constituencies. Who benefits? Who pays? Everything promoted as “for the children” needs to be studied critically as too often this is the code for “we’re trying to pull a fast one here.”

      Which reset? Cui bono?

      • Anthony

        To whose benefit: Americans. The phrase was used euphistically to avoid offense. However, I was writing about major institutional change (though I used reset) of the type that follows civil war, revolution, major societal events – the type that few beyond talk are prepared to engage in within the order and law of our functioning society. Additionally, I’ve posted on K-12 matters many times on Via Meadia as recently as yesterday (cramming) so I rather not be redundant. Thanks for interest.

  • Luke Lea

    Whenever I see reference to “the lump of labor fallacy” I think of an overseer with a whip in his hand. At what point do we say enough is enough? Is a reduced workweek never the answer?

  • Jim Luebke

    “Hitting the targets and missing the point”

    People have been told, “Get a degree, it’s the ticket to a good job”. But they miss the point that you have to pick your degree carefully, and actually learn something useful, to make it happen. So what was actually a good idea becomes a bad idea, because of cargo-culting behavior.

    Same thing happened with housing — people who took out mortgages for houses ended up building a great deal of equity and a solid life. So make mortgages more available, and everyone will be prosperous, right? Not quite. They missed the point that being prudent and careful with moneywas what got you a solid and prosperous life. So what was actually a good idea becomes a bad idea, again because of cargo-culting behavior.

    Committing to the forms without understanding the underlying virtues that make the system work is a common blunder among top-down policy wanks. I suspect we haven’t seen the last of this sort of problem, unless we set aside top-down policy for a while and allow the underlying virtues to work their way up through the grass roots.

  • Christopher Anderson

    I’d like to know what’s happening in the informal sector. I imagine it’s grown a lot since 2008. It probably doesn’t make much difference if we’re worried about overall numbers. But if we’re worried about youth unemployment, then it might be worth considering. The young seem exactly the sort most able to pivot into the informal sector.

  • Steve Walser

    For the life of me I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t want to emulate the German system of vocational training. Let the businesses pick the future workers and have the state train them. Good for everyone involved!

  • JT

    Having had a terrible gut condition for a few decades at this point, which has caused me to not be able to interact in society as most are easily capable of doing, I’ve wondered if the break down in the older order is so bad for me or not. I’ve wondered what would I do if I was let out of this prison? I’ve been institutionalized due to the disease. I know little else than to be ill all the time.

    Looks like there is a good possibility I’ll find out though. It has me leaning toward the idea that a system that is less rigid, more based upon merit sound nice and more opening for my situation. That is one item I’ve noticed over the years, most people tend to look at what is best for themselves over the group. In theory it shouldn’t be that way, but as this post shows it often is.

    What concerns me more is how the less talented and less educated will do with their time? People with to much times on their hands can be a destructive thing. With current policies one about gets the opinion that big labor projects are the most creative political leaders can come up with. And yet with all the regulations in place, such projects are exceedingly difficult to implement. Possibly automation and computer creatively can help? Maybe computer simulated ditch digging can be the solution for our employment woes.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service