The average American working in science, technology, engineering, and medical fields will earn $500,000 more in their lifetime than peers outside of those fields — and are more likely to stay employed even in periods of economic recession. Whether or not many of our young men and women will even be able to get jobs in those high-talent sectors — or in any high-paying white- or blue-collar job — remains an open question. And this problem explains why we must do more to advance the overhaul of American public education.
This insight comes courtesy of a report released last month by McKinsey & Co.’s global affairs think tank, which took a look at the global demand for high-skilled labor across the globe. The white paper has garnered attention for its prediction that global economies will need as many as 40 million new college educated workers to fill shortages that may come in the next eight years, and for determining that most of the new high-skilled job growth will happen not in China, but in India and other countries entering into the ranks of the U.S. and other advanced nations. But the most-important data coming from that report lies in how much the world has changed for the worse for high school dropouts lacking in strong reading, math, and science skills (as well as for high school grads lacking both those skills and some training in higher education be it traditional college, technical school, community college, or apprenticeships). Especially in a time in which science and medicine are the dominant careers for earning middle-class wages and gaining entry in becoming entrepreneurs.
Between 1963 and 2008, there has been negative annual compound growth in real weekly wages for dropouts, while high school grads, those with some higher ed training, and collegians, have seen compounded annual wage growth of at least four-tenths of one percent; in that period, the gap in wages between dropouts and college grads has increased by 63 percent in that period, from 1.7 to one ratio to nearly three-to-one. Meanwhile in the United States and other advanced economies, low-skilled workers struggle the most to land and keep jobs, struggling with unemployment rates that are two-to-four times higher than those with higher ed training and higher levels of skills, while also spending more time out of work. Given that the percentage of American workers out of work longer than 27 weeks gained new employment has declined from 20 percent to 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, this means that more out-of-work dropouts are unlikely to get back into the workforce. And that means more young men and women on welfare, adding to the trillions of dollars in long-term burdens that American taxpayers and the economy as a whole cannot bear.
It gets even worse when one looks at the blue-collar sectors in which dropouts used to be able to get jobs that paid middle-class wages. The number of labor-intensive, or low-skilled assembly and factory line jobs, declined by nearly half, with two million fewer workers on the line. As a result, low-skilled jobs as a percentage of all manufacturing positions declined by 29 percent, while the percentage of manufacturing jobs in capital- and knowledge-intensive have increased. While Baby Boomers in manufacturing are now heading into retirement, and the sector is growing again, the need will not be for low-skilled workers, but for those with strong math, science, and even computer language skills (especially in C and Fortran) in order to work as machinists and other knowledge-based jobs in factory settings. The long-term trend — nearly all labor-intensive jobs likely to disappear in the coming decades — is especially clear when one looks at Germany, where nearly all manufacturing jobs are capital- and knowledge-intensive. In short, high school dropouts need not apply because they won’t get passed the door.
While low-skilled Americans (and their counterparts in other countries) will struggle, those with higher ed training are doing better economically. In fact, as McKinsey notes, the decline in low- and medium-skilled labor as contributors to economic growth (from as high as 65 percent in the United States and other fairly young advanced countries during the 1970s, to 50 percent or lower today) explains the growing levels of income inequality across this nation and the globe. Doing especially well are men and women working in science and technology fields. In France, for example, unemployment rates for those with science, engineering, and healthcare baccalaureate and graduate degrees is below six percent, far lower than the unemployment rates for fellow grads in softer subjects such as communications. A young man graduating from college today with a degree in areas such as nuclear engineering is more-likely to land a high-paying gig and stay employed over time than a high school dropout.
Yet far too many Americans have gotten the education they need to graduate from high school, much less get into science and engineering professions. Thirty-two percent of young men in eighth grade and 37 percent of their female peers were scientifically illiterate, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The depths of science illiteracy are even worse for poor and minority students, who are less likely than middle-class white and Asian peers to get strong science instruction and curricula; two out of every three black eighth-graders, and one out of every two Latino and Native students scored Below Basic on the science portion of NAEP. Our kids are ill-equipped to understand such basic concepts such as hypothesis and the scientific method of inquiry, much less take on the higher-level tasks required for success in STEM careers. None of this is surprising: Thirty-eight states had science curricula standards of C or lower, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s analysis released earlier this year; even when standards and curricula are up to snuff, most kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds can’t get such coursework because of Zip Code Education and rationing of education policies (including denying seventh- and eighth-graders opportunities to take Algebra 1 and other courses).
But scientific illiteracy isn’t just about not knowing how to handle a science experiment. It is about the inability to grasp abstract concepts that come out of science that are important in both careers and in being able to navigate in complex society. That is a problem that starts with low levels of reading literacy. With 33 percent of all fourth-graders being functionally illiterate, and few children regardless of their socioeconomic background getting the strong reading instruction and remediation in the early grades needed to get up to speed before reaching third, this means plenty of young men and women who struggling with all forms of literacy. And this is a problem that lies with American public education’s failures in providing high-quality curricula and instruction — especially in recruiting aspiring teachers with strong subject-matter competency and training them properly to teach reading, math, and science.
Certainly we should, as McKinsey suggests, increase the number of young men and women graduating from traditional colleges, technical schools, and internships, especially in the science and technology fields. This starts by overhauling American public education and the systems that feed into it. This includes expanding alternative teacher training programs such as Teach For America and launching new forms of schools of education such as Relay in order to improve how aspiring teachers are prepared to teach in classrooms. It also means clamping down on who is allowed into teaching into the first place by demanding that all aspiring teachers have strong competency in math and other subjects they will teach, a major reason why traditional ed schools are failing so miserably. Identifying kids struggling with reading before they reach first grade — and helping them with intensive remediation — is also key. Improving science curricula is critical; the new Common Core science standards being shopped across the country are an important start, but we must do more to provide all kids with strong, comprehensive, college preparatory curricula. And expanding school choice so that families can choose high-quality math, reading, and science instruction is also important.
If we want all children to have the prospect of brighter futures, we must help them get the education they need to take on the careers and entrepreneurial opportunities in the science and technology fields that can make it possible. Anything other than that is economically and even morally unacceptable.