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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Forcing People Through the Gates of Education is Not the Answer

I’m sure many of you have already heard about the comments Bill Gates made regarding education. He even had an opinion column in the Los Angeles Times a week ago. His argument was one that people almost universally agree with: American children are not getting the best education they could. However, Bill Gates goes one step further by describing our high schools as obsolete because “The idea behind the old high school system was that you could train an adequate work force by sending only a small fraction of students to college, and that the other kids either couldn't do college work or didn't need to.” In today’s world, Bill argues, we need to prepare every high school student for college. Now, let me preface this whole discussion by saying that I think Bill Gates is an extraordinary businessman and that I admire the fact that he has started to focus more on philanthropy in recent years. Now, back to the discussion regarding education and Bill Gates’ comments.

Sorry Bill, you’re dead fucking wrong. You should probably stick to sweating over software code, testing X-box games, or whatever it is you do these days. Simply put, the problem isn’t a lack of educationally qualified workers; it’s a lack of decent jobs.

“But…but…”, you’ll be saying, “we’ve added almost 2 million jobs over the last year! Unemployment is going down; the problem is that we need a lot more educated workers”. Granted, we have added 2 million jobs over the past year, but you have to look a little deeper than the surface number to get the real picture.

You see, Billy, there’s several types of jobs. You’ve got your standard breakdown between farm and non-farm jobs (non-farm payroll jobs are reported monthly in a report released by the Labor Department). Within non-farm payroll you’ve also got breakdowns by type and industry. Economists like to look at the breakdown between service-sector jobs and other jobs. What does this tell economists? Well, service sector jobs includes retail and fast-food jobs – that’s right, we’re talking about the ‘would you like fries with that’ type of jobs. Sure, there are plenty of ‘high-value’ service sector jobs (investment advisors, doctors, lawyers, hookers), but a large percentage of service jobs are minimum-wage paying jobs with no health or pension benefits. That’s why if you get a large increase in service-sector jobs it’s not really a great thing – sure, it’s good that more people have jobs, but by and large they’re not great jobs. That’s why economists often break down their analysis between Service sector jobs and Non-Service sector jobs.

We’re going to go through another example, but first for the sake of simplicity (yeah…that’s right…simple for you, Billy) we’re going to take away the euphemism (Service vs. Non-Service) and re-label our breakdown as Shitty and Non-Shitty jobs. Let’s take last week’s employment report that was released on Friday. This report was for the month of February and it showed that the economy added 262,000 non-farm payroll jobs in the previous month (Whoopee!). But wait just a minute…207,000 of those jobs were Shitty jobs (Bummer!). Non-Shitty jobs only made up 55,000 of those jobs. “So what?”, you’ll be thinking, “55,0000 jobs is a lot of jobs – that’s like 54,999 more jobs than I could use right now…”. Sure, it sounds like a lot of jobs, but economists estimate that with demographic shifts and population growth the economy needs to add 150,000 new jobs each month just to keep the unemployment rate constant. Any month in which we’re not adding 150,000 new jobs we’re actually losing ground. Additionally, if you care about things like poverty rates and the middle class, the 150,000 jobs we need to be adding per month should be Non-Shitty jobs. For sake of clarity, and to illustrate the effect of deterioration in the Non-Shitty job base, I’ve attached below a chart from an economic study conducted in 2004 by Professor A.G. Shinkleton:

Going back to the original issue at hand, the question of education, we start to see that simply having an education in-and-of-itself is not a cure-all for economic woes. As 90% of college grads will tell you, their jobs do not actually make use of their degree – the degree was just a piece of paper they needed to be able to interview for the job. Why should we start taking millions of kids who have no interest in pursuing a college education and force them to go through 4 years and $120,000 just so they can get a Shitty job? It’s gotten to the point where you practically need a college education to serve a cup of coffee!

What America desperately needs is a return to the ‘good job’ – the job that you could take right out of high school, which included health and pension benefits, and that could support your spouse and family (a one-income family? – I refuse to believe it ever existed!). Sure, it’s not a ‘great’ job – maybe you need a college education for one of those – but at least you’re not stuck working two jobs and turning your family into a 3-income family just to make ends meet. These days even college grads are stuck working 60-hour workweeks and find that at the end of the year they still haven’t saved any money. As an illustration here’s a real chart of the minimum wage adjusted for inflation (funny when your credibility sinks so low that you have to point out that you’re using a real chart this time…):

Yes, we all agree that education is a good thing, and that a college education is even better (maybe then more than 30% of the population would believe in evolution…), but we need to face the real fact: if everyone has an education and no one has a job it doesn’t solve anything. We need a return to the decent job – the job that an American knows he deserves if he is willing to work hard and live honestly.