Morning Must Reads: Hard Times In Pennsylvania and Debates About Higher Education

The Mercyhurst College Center for Applied Politics has released to The Philadelphia Inquirer the results of a poll asking Pennsylvanians about the impact of the economy on their lives.

The poll found that one in four Pennsylvania residents has had someone living in his or her household lose a job or be laid off in the last 12 months — and two out of three had close friends or family members who were put out of work in that time. More than three out of every four Pennsylvanians said they knew individuals or families who struggle every month to afford basic needs such as rent, utilities, health care, clothes, or food. 'The poverty question was startling,' said Joseph Morris, a professor and director of the college's Center for Applied Politics, which conducted the poll, 'as was the fact that a strong majority of Pennsylvanians have had to make lifestyle changes because of the economy.'

The Mercyhurst College Center findings mirror those of the State of Working Pennsylvania 2011:

Over one in four Pennsylvania workers — and nearly one in three U.S. workers — have had less paid work than they want during the last 12 months. ... National poll results reveal that, between 2009 and 2011, 43% of likely voters had been unemployed or someone in their family has been unemployed. Since likely voters are a significantly more educated, higher-income group than typical voters, the share of all workers that have been unemployed or had a family member unemployed almost certainly exceeds 50%.

The White House Jobs Council was in Pittsburgh last night and again today. A story in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette closes with a quote from Penn State University's Center for Global Business Studies.

One of the Jobs Council's biggest challenges is to make sure workers are equipped to perform the technology-based jobs Seegrid and other companies are creating. 'The problem is only 6 percent of our student body wants to get an engineering degree. That number is 15 percent in Germany and over 20 percent in India and China,' said Fariborz Ghadar, director of Penn State University's Center for Global Business Studies.

I have heard members of the business lobby in central Pennsylvania complain that too many college students are pursuing the wrong major, which the business lobby uses as an excuse to justify devoting fewer resources to higher education. Now we have a higher education official making the same claim but skillfully laying the blame on the student. The reality is, of course, more complex than either of those very naive views.

If you want students to have a specific set of skills, you have to direct resources to give students the incentive to choose those majors.

More importantly, there has to be real jobs when students graduate, not just marketing fluff about lots of demand for workers in certain fields. There are lots of claims of shortages in lots of different fields, and yet wages and incomes keep falling for most people. Real shortages in labor markets are accompanied by rising wages.

Now, what of the choices all those college kids have made? Are Engineering majors less likely to be unemployed than college graduates overall? No.

This story reminded me of an opinion piece that also appeared in the Post-Gazette over the weekend. Lifting the skills of the workforce requires more resources, not less, and it requires new pathways for workers, especially those not finishing college to get those skills. In that regard, Germany does have something to teach us.

While about 70 percent of U.S. high school graduates go on to study at a four-year college, the sad reality is that only about 60 percent of them actually complete a bachelor's degree (or its equivalent) in any field even within six years of enrollment. That means a surprisingly high percentage of America's young people is entering the labor force armed with only a high school diploma — and little or no work experience. Not surprisingly, America's youth unemployment is more than double the rate for the overall population. Meanwhile, in European countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden, youth unemployment is about half the U.S. rate. That is surprising since these countries, like the United States, were hit hard by the global financial crisis. Americans have traditionally viewed college as a must on the road to good jobs and financial security. Contrast that with Germany, where roughly two-thirds of people under the age of 22 choose to enter into apprenticeships, typically a three-year period of training at a firm. Along with related technical instruction at a vocational school, a young worker learns the skills required for a given occupation.

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