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Schools, Workers and Jobs

As Ronald Reagan used to say, "There you go again." The remark this time aptly applies to an essay in The Wall Street Journal claiming that three million job openings in this country can't be filled because of a lack of worker skills ("How to Close the Skills Gap," Aug. 10).

The writers, Mary Landrieu, (D- Louisiana) and Patty Murray (D- Washington), maintain that schools are the culprit because they are not producing sufficiently literate graduates. According to a report by the National Commission on Adult Literacy, 90 million adults have literacy skills so low that they will not be successful in post-secondary education and training. The prediction is based on the assumption that 30 million of the 50 million new jobs the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to be created by 2018 will require post-secondary credentials.

It's easy to understand the appeal of the argument. But it is not new. It was heard in 1983 in A Nation at Risk: "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation." Then in 1990, America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages charged that inadequate skills developed at failing schools were responsible for productivity to "slow to a crawl."

Yet the U.S. shortly thereafter entered into a ten-year period of productivity that was the envy of the world. If schools were not graduating enough workers with requisite skills, then how do Landrieu and Murray account for this remarkable era? Were not fiscal policies, corporate honesty and other factors responsible?

The allegation that companies, both big and small, are unable to find enough qualified workers was further undermined by Michael Teitelbaum, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, who testified on Nov. 6, 2007 before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation: "First, no one who has come to the question with an open mind has been able to find any objective data suggesting general 'shortages' of scientists and engineers." He went on: "Second, there are substantially more scientists and engineers graduating from U.S. universities than can find attractive career openings in the U.S. workforce."

If Teitelbaum is correct, then why are big brand-name companies in the U.S. hiring abroad while cutting back at home? According to the U.S. Commerce Department, companies reduced their work forces domestically by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million. Landrieu and Murray say they are forced to do so because there are not enough qualified workers here. But I say they do so because the cost of labor is cheaper overseas. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in "A Theory of Everything (Sort of)" on Aug. 14: "It used to be that only cheap foreign manual labor was easily available; now cheap foreign genius is easily available."

Echoing this view is Don Peck in Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures & What We Can Do About It. He argues that the wages employers offer are so low that few American workers will strongly commit to that work. It's why so many at the lower end of the economy drift in and out of work. Yet Landrieu and Murray curiously omit mention of wages paid by companies as one of the major reasons they can't find qualified workers.

Schools certainly need to do a much better job preparing students for the global economy. But laying all the blame at their feet in light of the evidence available is scapegoating. It may provide catharsis for angry and frustrated taxpayers, but it does little else.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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