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Lessons—Shortage of Skills? A High-Tech Myth

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON OCTOBER 27, 1999 ]

Shortage of Skills? A High-Tech Myth

By  Richard Rothstein

We’ve got bipartisan agreement that our new high-tech economy demands radical education reforms. What worked once won’t work anymore.

As Al Gore puts it, 60 percent of new jobs will require advanced technological skills. Bill Bradley says school improvement is one thing we need to lead in the 21st century. George W. Bush demands reform because our new economy requires higher skills.

But it is not really true. Overall skill growth required by jobs of the future is modest. In fact, skill requirements are growing more slowly than in the past. School improvement may be a good idea, but we need better reasons for it than a false skills crisis because if we reform schools for the wrong reasons, we will reform them in the wrong ways.

Of course, schools must prepare young people for millions of new jobs. But, while technologically sophisticated jobs will grow, the biggest chunk of openings will be in services — and not very high-tech services at that.

In the next decade, about five million new jobs will be created for food workers, including kitchen help, waiters and waitresses. Another four million will be for cashiers and retail salespeople. More than three million will be for clerks. Two million will be for helpers, packagers and laborers. Openings for truck drivers will abound.

Managerial and professional occupations will also need more workers, but their numbers pale compared with openings requiring less education. Employers will hire more than three times as many cashiers as engineers. They will need more than twice as many food-counter workers, waiters and waitresses than all the systems analysts, computer engineers and database administrators combined.

How did we convince ourselves that schools must prepare an entire generation of young people who know calculus? Partly, we have confused occupational growth rates with the number of new jobs. Computer engineering and science employment will increase by a whopping 100 percent, while food service grows by only 11 percent. But computer science is a relatively small field, so new positions generate rapid growth rates. There are more waitresses today, so smaller percentage growth yields more new jobs.

We are also misled by a truism that more employees use computers at work. Computers often reduce skill levels. Think about supermarket cashiers using computers to scan bar codes. Many workers may need less education, not more, when jobs are computerized.

And we naturally focus on what is new, overlooking what is unchanged. Amazon.com may market in cyberspace, but it creates more jobs for warehousemen than for Web site designers. It takes no more education to drive a forklift at Amazon than at Kmart.

Of course, we do face some shortages in skills. But we also have many jobs where workers, including college graduates, are now overeducated for tasks they perform. And many shortages in skills are temporary. We don’t have enough engineers, but a decade ago we had too many. Students then, seeing few openings, switched to other fields, creating today’s shortage.

In time, supply and demand will readjust. We shouldn’t confuse shortages in specific fields with an overall lack of academic qualifications.  The Labor Department projects an increase from 1996 to 2006 of less than 1 percent in the overall share of workers in occupations requiring a college degree.

False expectations that if all children get higher math scores they will all get better jobs encourage us to duck critical decisions about how schools relate to society. We rightly want schools to equip rich and poor, black and white, to compete equally for better jobs. And we want all young people, regardless of background, to get good jobs, for which we expect better schools to qualify them.

But this hope can’t be fulfilled. We already enroll enough college students to fill foreseeable vacancies in professional fields. Increasing the number of applicants does little to increase the number of vacancies.

So we face a challenge: If academic outcomes improve for all, what will determine which children win, and which lose, that race?

Imagine that schools further narrow achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children. If highly paid, highly skilled jobs are limited, and more children from Brooklyn win them, fewer children from Scarsdale will do so. If improved qualifications empower more poor children to become computer scientists, more rich children will have to settle for being waiters.

This seems decent and fair, but we have a lot of introspection, debate and economic reform ahead before it can happen. Perhaps, for example, raising academic achievement for disadvantaged children also requires, as a practical matter, raising the relative pay of waiters to make these jobs more acceptable to advantaged children (and to their parents, who are asked to pay taxes to improve the competitiveness of inner-city graduates).

We can’t face these critical issues of 21st-century education with minds clouded by a “high tech jobs of the future” fog.

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