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Educating a New Labor Force

It’s going to take a new kind of commitment to meet the demands of the future.

I am writing this column on Labor Day, which I have spent in a non-laborious fashion reading a fascinating article in The Seattle Times on the need for a better educated work force (seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2012821283_work06.html). This quote from Gautam Godhwani, CEO of SimplyHired.com, a company that tracks job listings, is typical of the sentiments expressed in the story: “The big fear is the country is simply not preparing workers for the kind of skills that the country is going to need.” Many economists, like Harvard’s (MA) Lawrence Katz, are forecasting a shrinking middle class. “There will be jobs,” he is quoted as saying. “The big question is what they are going to pay, and what kind of lives they will allow people to lead. This will be a big issue for how broad a middle class we are going to have.”

For these experts, education is clearly the answer. But we need both a different kind of education and a commitment to education at all levels.

In their excellent book The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market (Princeton University Press, 2005), Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane explore the kind of education needed for future jobs. They explain that every job requires processing of information. Computers do well with tasks that are clearly and consistently defined by rules; these tasks are also the easiest to send overseas. However three types of workplace tasks cannot be carried out by simply following rules: 1) identifying and solving new problems, called expert thinking; 2) complex communication that requires an understanding of human interactions; and 3) physical activities, mostly in the service sector. The authors point out that the jobs that have increased in number over the last decade have been at either end of the wage spectrum—expert thinking or service sector—echoing Katz’s concern about a shrinking middle class.

The key to student success in this complicated new world is to increase their abilities in expert thinking and complex communication—skills that get lip service, but not much concrete attention in education today.

The commitment part is another story. Almost a year ago, the Obama administration proposed The American Graduation Initiative “to strengthen the nation’s community colleges” with a proposed injection of $12 billion over the next decade. Due to politics, the funding for this initiative has been whacked to less than a billion. State governments, many in dire economic circumstances, have cut funding for education as well.

Given the inextricable link between a high-quality education system and an effective work force, maybe we should change the name of Labor Day to Labor and Education Day. We can still honor the workers of today and yesterday, but also look toward the future of the work force. The name change might only be symbolic, but symbols have been known to get some attention.

About the Author

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

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