Saturday, June 16, 2012

Liberal Arts Education As The Road To Serfdom

The job market stinks. Not even Obama’s press secretary could put a happy spin on last month’s employment data. But ironically, at a time when millions of Americans are despairing of ever finding work again, there are companies out there that cannot find enough properly trained employees to fill the jobs that they have available.

Competition for skilled college graduates has gotten so fierce that large companies, such as Microsoft and Boeing, are recruiting promising underclassmen. By the time each class graduates, the leftovers are of little use to smaller companies.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) reports that 51% of its membership advertised for new employees in the last three months, but nearly three quarters of those advertisements attracted “few or no qualified applicants.”

So we have a mismatch on both sides of the job market. This economy is generating too few jobs. And our colleges produce too few properly educated applicants for the jobs that it does create.

And that’s a big part of this country’s educational crisis. We simply don’t produce enough graduates with the skills needed to nurture this economy back to health. And yet we keep charging more and more for unmarketable educations.

The price of education has risen dramatically over the past few decades, and has soared in the last few years.  The Boards of Regents at Washington’s colleges and universities have raised tuition as much as 16% in this last round, building upon earlier double digit increases.

Simultaneously, the value of the education received has declined.

There was once a time, not so long ago, when any college degree in any subject made the graduate a sought after talent. This was the residue of a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Griggs versus Duke Power. That decision distorted the relationship between employers and job applicants. Previously employers tried to predict an applicant’s prospects within the company by administering aptitude tests.

The United States Supreme Court judged that such tests imposed a discriminatory burden upon racial minorities. Writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice Warren Burger declared that: "Good intent or absence of discriminatory intent does not redeem employment procedures or testing mechanisms that operate as 'built-in headwinds' for minority groups."

The court’s “disparate impact” finding was applied only to employers. Colleges and universities were still permitted to administer aptitude tests, often known as quizzes, mid-terms, and final exams. As a consequence, employers could make college degrees a qualification for employment or promotion.

A college degree in any subject was therefore a valuable commodity in the job market. Even a degree in one of those victim’s studies majors told employers that the bearer of the certification was bright enough and/or persistent enough to plow through four years of college.

This set the stage for a number of unfortunate outcomes. First of all, relatively useless majors proliferated. Why study math and science when you can study oppression? And as more and more students gravitated toward majors with questionable utility in the workforce, the job market became more demanding. Without the influx of Indian and Asian immigrants, our technology companies would be helpless in the global marketplace. Even so, more and more of our manufacturing and engineering is being outsourced to Asia because we simply cannot supply the trained labor needed.

When asked about Apple’s outsourcing of jobs to China, Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs explained to Barack Obama that “those jobs aren’t coming back.”

Approximately 700,000 people are employed manufacturing Apple products and almost none of them are in the United States. Apple needed only 15 days to recruit and hire 8,700 trained engineers to supervise roughly 200,000 assembly workers in China.  Apple estimated that, in the United States, it would have required nine months to find that many engineers.

We simply do not graduate people with the skills needed for the modern manufacturing workforce. And, to make matters worse, we charge a small (or large) fortune for the unmarketable education.

This year, the total burden of student loan debt surpassed a trillion dollars. And much of that debt was accumulated in the pursuit of degrees with little or no value in today’s more competitive job market.

Obama’s answer has been to promise lower interest rates and to forgive any debt remaining after the graduate had become a grandparent.

In the meantime, the money paying that debt is money that can’t be spent purchasing a car, a house, or even a new refrigerator.


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