Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Higher Education and Joblessness

The jobs are out there. Good jobs at good wages for welders, riggers, mechanics, machinists, plumbers, technicians… they exist, but they are going begging.

The Wall Street Journal reports that recruiters for industrial firms, like railroads and manufacturers, have lots of job openings. Unfortunately, the products of the American educational system cannot or will not do them.

America’s youth want to be knowledge workers, but there are not enough jobs in those fields. They want to think, not do. They want to wrestle with ideas, not fuses and lug nuts.

America’s youth do not want to do anything that resembles manual labor. And yet, that’s where the jobs are.

Bill Frezza is right to say that some part—estimated at 1 ½%-- of America’s unemployment is caused by a mismatch.

The American educational system is not giving students the right skills and is not teaching them how to navigate the real world.

The job market for museum curators, Frezza suggests, does not justify the number of students learning art history. The same applies to the job market for professional artists. In few places is there a more grotesque mismatch between the number of students wanting to be artists and the number of artists who can make a living making art.

Of  course, the educational establishment does not believe in the market. It looks down it aquiline nose at physical labor, especially the kind where you get your hands dirty. Most especially the kind that is going to reduce its importance.

Educators want everyone to have a higher education. They think that everyone should be exposed to the liberal arts. They think that college students should learn how to think, and, that once they know how to think, they will be able to think about anything whatever.

They will not know how to do very much, but they will have learned to transcend mundanity and to bask in the glow of the great Ideas.

Those who tout the supreme value of the liberal arts tend to have a financial interest in a market distortion that keeps them employed. One does well to doubt their wisdom.  

In the long run, the market will out. In the long run students will eschew liberal arts degrees that too often give them with a lifetime of debt in exchange for a degree that provides access to their parents’ couch.

Future students will be drawn to STEM studies, but also to more of what the professoriat would consider to be dirty jobs. The latter refer to jobs that, as it happens, cannot be outsourced. Anyone anywhere can program a computer, but you do not send out to Shanghai the next time you need some plumbing work.

The more students are drawn to practical studies, the smaller will be the budgets for liberal arts programs. The fewer students attend college, the smaller will be the university budgets.

It’s inevitable. But, when will it happen and how will the process be managed?

It is already happening in China. Frezza reports: “A little noticed Associated Press news story last week reported that China now plans to phase out college majors that consistently produce unemployable graduates. Any program in which 60% of the graduates failed to find work for two consecutive years would face funding reductions until supply was brought back into balance with demand.

“This Chinese hand may not be invisible, but it would be one that Adam Smith would recognize. Isn't it amazing that even self-identified communists are figuring out that markets only work when adjustment mechanisms act to reduce surpluses and shortages? Destroy those mechanisms and unemployable college graduates pile up as fast as unsold electric cars.”

Obviously, students vote on these matters with their feet. Administrators also have a say. In some ways, budgets have the final say.

On some campuses, entire Humanities departments have been eliminated. Last year SUNY Albany eliminated the French, Russian, Italian, Classics and theatre departments.

The process is taking place and the process will continue to take place. Sooner or later the market will put an end to the dream of offering everyone a college education.

Yet, Frezza raises an important question. Should government officials get into the business of pushing things along, or should it allow the markets to take their own sweet time?

In America, if it happens that a wealthy benefactor wants to fund the Classics Department at Alma Mater U., he certainly has the right to do so. In China, he would probably not be allowed. 

The benefactor does not change the market’s verdict. It means that studying the Classics has become more like joining a seminary. It does not pay for itself. You do it more for spiritual enlightenment than for practical skills.

But, ought we to be concerned about the future employability of the graduates of a subsidized Classics programs?

To my knowledge Chinese officials have not eliminated entire departments, but they have set down a marker. If 60% of the graduates in your department remain unemployed for two years, you will be adjudged not to be doing your job. Your department, and probably your job, will be eliminated.

So much for tenure.

Of course, American professors have tenure, so we are unlikely to import the Chinese approach.

Yet, in the long run, it is probably going to happen anyway. The market will out.

Some people are surprised by this development. In the past a college degree was the ticket to higher pay and a better lifestyle.

Unfortunately, the past does not always serve as the best guide to the future. College may be great for some but that does not mean that it is good for everyone.

Now higher education is in a market bubble. That does not mean that it has no value. It means that it is grossly overvalued.

When a tulip bulb is worth the price of your house, you are in a market bubble. Not because tulip bulbs do not have value, but because the current market valuation has relation to that value.

Once a market becomes irrational it will tend to correct. It will bring prices down to a more sensible valuation and to punish those who thought that the bubble prices were market prices. 

Frezza points out that if colleges are producing too many art history majors, progressives will try to solve the problem by using public money to build more museums.

If the museums cannot sustain themselves, they will either have to get more public money or go broke. Once the public money runs out, they will let their staff go. You know which ones: the young people who had been enticed to study art history and who were not allowed to find a better path earlier in life. It’s the market in action.

Or better, it’s what happens when progressives decide that they must interfere in the market.

Frezza offers this outline of the future of American universities. He writes: “College participation rates will have to go back down to historical norms. Slots will have to be reserved for students that can actually profit from them, restoring graduation rates to where they were before colleges were flooded with people who don't belong there, including illiterate freeloaders. Selection will have to be based on merit, not social engineering. Loans will have to be restricted to majors that confer capacity to pay the loans back. Dead-end programs used to train the next generation of professors - whose only skill will be to teach more such dead-end programs - will have to be limited, funded not by taxpayers but by ideological philanthropists with a hankering for fineries like literary criticism and gender studies.

“This may seem like common sense to most people, but it strikes horror into the hearts of the liberal professoriate. After years of feathering their nests so they can produce students trained only to bite the hand that feeds them, perhaps it's time to serve up a few helpings of horror. We can no longer afford to take the snobbery of academics seriously. Taxpayers just don't have the money to keep them or their young acolytes on the dole.”

By now, it’s not if, but when.


David Foster said...

One thing that must be considered is that the skilled blue-collar worker is at some point likely to top out from a promotion standpoint...Union Pacific may be eager to hire skilled electricians who can climb towers, but in today's climate it is highly unlikely that one of them could ever become CEO of the railroad, or even a regional vice president. (The previous CEO of UP did start out as a brakeman, but the world has changed since his earlier years)

I think many parents do realize this topping-out phenomenon, and that's one reason why they steer kids to college even when the particular majors don't seem to make much sense from a career standpoint.

SlartiBartfast said...

Topping out as concerns the corporate hierarchy is one issue, but earning potential is entirely different. I know a plumber that opened his own plumbing supply business and now lives in a $4+ million dollar house. A relative of mine is an electrician. He worked for the local municipality for 20 years, took early retirement and now, at 44, owns his own company with 3 work crews. This is on top of his union pension of 75k/yr. If you are more interested in working your way up the corporate ladder and pleasing a bureaucracy than I would say college is the way to go. If you are more entrepreneurial and believe you would enjoy a skilled trade then college is much less important. BTW, I'm a college graduate and the plumbers yearly property tax is only about 10k less than my yearly pre-tax income.

David Foster said...

True: starting a business is often a good option for an ambitious, intelligent, and skilled person without a college degree. Reasonably good verbal and math skills are very helpful in this; they SHOULD be acquirable in high school but often of course this does not take place in our public schools.

And, of course, the Obama administration and the entire Democratic Party seem set on throwing up obstacles in from of small businesses.

Online Teaching Jobs said...

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