As an article in today’s Boston Globe highlights, warnings of the instability of the Massachusetts economy are growing. Reporter Deirdre Fernandes writes that the region’s top economists are stressing that despite numbers showing economic recovery and steady growth, when you check under the hood, you’ll see a more troubling picture. Yes, the official unemployment has dropped even lower than pre-recession levels to 4.4%, which is also below the current national average of 5%. And it’s true that the state economy has been experiencing steady growth, reaching an annual rate of 2.3%, well above the national average of 0.5%. But these data points divert attention from a myriad of challenges and systemic imbalances combining to create a ‘perfect storm’ positioned to wreak havoc on our economy.
“Not Just Kid Stuff Anymore: The Economic Imperative for More Adults to Complete College” by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems revealed that the number of high school graduates in Massachusetts will decline by nearly 10 percent between now and 2020. We are one of 31 states which will experience a decline and one of thirteen that will experience a decline of between 5 and 10 percent.
What does this mean for the future of our workforce and for our economy?
- Massachusetts is a high educational attainment state, with growing employer demand for more workers that have at least some level post-secondary education or training.
- In fact, between 2008-2018, state labor demand will increase six times as much for college-educated workers (148,000 additional jobs) as for high school graduates and dropouts (25,000 additional jobs).
- However, recent high school graduates are our traditional source of such workers, and their numbers will decline in MA over the next decade.
- We therefore face an imperative to help many more adults complete college credentials in order to meet employer needs.
Over 60 percent of the workforce in 2020 is already in the workforce today. We will not be able to meet employer demand for college-educated workers by relying on high school graduates alone, especially if the size of this group is actually declining in our state.
While we certainly cannot afford to stop investing in quality public secondary education, the demographic shift in our population also makes a clear case for investing in the skills of our current adult workforce. We must help and support those with lower skills but who have the desire and ambition to gain more skills and a better job.
This means we need to:
- Invest in job training and placement, adult basic education, English language services, and transitions to post-secondary education and technical education.
- Address financial aid policies at the state and federal levels to make aid more accessible and responsive to the needs of adults who often juggle work, family, and school.
- Work with employers to identify jobs they have a hard time filling, and collaborate with them on appropriate training for these jobs.
Make no mistake, increasing public investments for any set of priorities is a difficult proposition in these times, when the rhetoric and often the fiscal reality is all about cuts. However, making these investments is not only the right thing to do for our communities and neighbors, it’s what we need to do to ensure our long-term economic competitiveness.
“Employers have millions of jobs they are trying to fill. But in some cases, they are having trouble.”
So begins a new series on NPR about the labor-skills mismatch that we currently have in the United States, even during this recession.
While this first segment focuses on higher skilled jobs like architects, engineers, and software developers, middle-skill jobs like airplane mechanics are also noted as being difficult to fill. Employers also focused on the importance of post-secondary credentials and experience in terms of getting hired in the current labor market.
All of this underscores the critical nature of the work we need to do to prepare our workforce for middle-skill and high-skill jobs. If employers can’t find the workers they need, even in the midst of the worst recession in recent history, we clearly need to do a better job of aligning our training and educational systems to where the jobs are. Of course, part of this work needs to be focused on the K-12 pipeline, integrating STEM into the curriculum, strengthening college preparation and improving basic skills.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that two-thirds of our 2020 workforce is already past high school, and many adults need opportunities to re-train or up-skill as well. Here in Massachusetts, this means we need stronger and more adult basic education programs; better transitions to post-secondary education and training; better linkages between workforce development, adult education, higher education, and businesses; support for adults in post-secondary education; more evening/weekend/modular/accelerated certificate and credential programs; and more investment overall in public higher education.
If we can’t give our workforce the skills to compete in the 21st century economy, we’ll all lose the race.
According to a recent Boston Globe article, Massachusetts has made some of the deepest cuts to higher education in the nation over the last five years. Between 2004 and 2009, Massachusetts has slashed funding per student by 13.3 percent, while nationally, per-student funding rose by 4 percent.
Since 2009, state appropriation for public higher education has dropped an additional 12 percent.
Massachusetts already ranks 46th in the nation in terms of per capita spending on public higher education. How much lower can we go? And what happens when we don’t adequately support public higher education?
- Campuses try to compensate by raising fees, making public colleges less affordable.
- Students, especially those with lower incomes, decide they can’t afford to attend.
- Colleges cut staff and compromise essential services like academic advising.
The average tuition and fees at Massachusetts public 4-year institutions as of 2009 is already $7,922, 33% higher than the national average of $5,950. The average tuition and fees at Massachusetts public 2-year institutions (2009) is $3,071, 49% higher than the national average of $2,063.
By cutting public support even further, we are shifting the burden of public higher education to many residents of the Commonwealth who can least afford it, especially as our support for need-based financial aid has declined by over 50% over the last 20 years.
It’s undeniable that our system needs to do a better job of graduating students and connecting them with jobs in our high growth industries, and we should have better performance measures and incentive pay for increasing credential attainment rates for all students, including adults and part-time students. Still, the public higher education system is a better alternative than many of the for-profit schools that are so good at marketing their programs but often leave students with crushing debt and without meaningful credentials.
And, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we have significantly under-funded public higher education for years. We need to catch up.
The bottom line is that cuts to this part of our educational system compromise the future of our workforce and thus the strength of our economy. 85% of Massachusetts public higher education students stay in Massachusetts and work here upon graduation. The value of the increased earnings of college graduates over their lifetime is 9.4 times greater than the cost to the state of their education.
Given that 44 percent of our jobs are middle-skill (requiring some post-secondary education) and another 36 percent are high skill (requiring at least a four-year college degree), shouldn’t we be investing more in the system that prepares our residents for employment and helps keep these jobs in our state?