Myth: American graduates don't have the skills needed for a
Fact: Americans are generally overqualified for the jobs available.
America's problem is not that it has too few educated workers, but that it has too many. Over 20 percent of all college graduates are either unemployed or hold jobs that do not require a college degree. Competition to get into graduate school has reached a fever pitch, and American universities produce 25 percent too many doctorates than the economy can use. At the college level, the U.S. is the most highly educated country in the world. At the primary and secondary level, the U.S. has a mixed record on education, but with a lower high-school dropout rate than most other nations. Unlike other countries, the U.S. does not have an extensive apprenticeship program to train workers who have no more than a high school education.
Many critics of American public education argue that too many students are graduating without the skills needed for a high-tech economy. Employers tell anecdotal horror stories about job applicants who cannot read or write or perform their jobs adequately. Fortunately, these criticisms describe the exceptions, not the rule. (1)
In fact, there is a glut of college graduates on the labor market. In 1993, one third of all 1991 and 1992 college graduates held jobs that did not require a college degree. (2) As for all college graduates, in 1990, 20 percent either held jobs that did not require a college degree or were unemployed. That was up from 18 percent in 1979 and 11 percent in 1968.
The glut is so serious that competition among college students to enter graduate school has reached a fever pitch. In 1996, for example, 46,968 students competed for 16,200 openings in medical schools across the country. (3) At law schools, 70,900 students applied for 43,000 openings. (4) Similar gluts exist in virtually all fields. Even the lucky few who graduate with doctorates find themselves competing for too few jobs that require their degrees. According to a 1995 study by Stanford University and the Rand Corporation, universities turn out "25 percent more doctorates in science and engineering than the U.S. economy can absorb." (5)
With too many overqualified workers at the top, a displacement effect runs down the entire job ladder. The best high school graduates who seek non-professional jobs find themselves competing with college graduates. These competent high school graduates are then bumped down, to compete for even lower jobs.
What this means is that the vast majority of American workers have more than enough fundamental education to perform their jobs. In 1989, a survey called "The Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce" questioned American employers on the education of their workers. The researchers found that over 80 percent of American employers were satisfied with the education of their newly hired employees. Only 5 percent expected that their employees would require further basic training or education.
And how does American education stack up against that of other nations? At the college level, the U.S. is the most highly educated society in the world. At the elementary and high school level, the U.S. has a mixed record.
Educational attainment of persons aged 25 to 64 years old, percent by country, 1992 (6) Primary Secondary College Country Only Also Also --------------------------------------------- United States 16% 53 24 Netherlands 42 37 21 Canada 29 30 15 Denmark 41 40 13 Germany 18 60 12 Norway 21 54 12 Sweden 30 46 12 United Kingdom 32 49 11 Finland 39 43 10 France 48 36 10 Switzerland 19 60 8 Italy 72 22 6
Adding the figures in the first two columns shows how well each
nation educates its non-college workforce. For example, the U.S.
gives 69 percent of its society either an elementary or high school
education, although in Italy it's 94 percent, France, 84 percent,
etc. On the other hand, the U.S. also sees more of its students
through high school than most other countries, which have unusually
high dropout rates even in elementary school. So, on the whole,
the U.S. produces more highly educated workers than any other
Meeting the requirements of the workplace
Another criticism is that the public education system isn't teaching students the skills that will be required in our rapidly changing high-tech economy. Apple Computer Chairman John Sculley once complained to President Clinton that "We're still trapped in a K-12 public education system which is preparing our young people for jobs that just don't exist anymore."
But this criticism doesn't hold water. With relatively minor spending increases, educators have been able to add enough computers to elementary school classrooms that 54 percent of all students now use them. At present, this is an even greater percentage than those who use computers on the job.
The U.S. does, however, fail to train its future workers in a way that most other prosperous nations do not. Other nations have extensive apprenticeship programs for workers who do not go on to college. The success of these publicly funded programs is considerable, and many foreign entrepreneurs have scratched their heads over why the U.S. has not adopted them.
The problem is this: lower education is general education, teaching the fundamentals that are universally needed by all citizens, regardless of their future jobs. But at the higher levels, education becomes increasingly specialized. In the U.S., true specialization in a particular job field does not really occur until college. Yet, roughly four-fifths of all Americans do not attend college, even though they will be choosing job specialties as well, and have just as much need for specialized training. Other nations solve this problem through apprenticeship programs. By contrast, blue-collar workers in the U.S. must struggle through on-the-job training.
On-the-job training has many serious drawbacks. First, simply knowing a job is insufficient for a manager to train someone else in it. Training and educating others efficiently, easily and completely is a high skill, one that the majority of managers fail to master. Not surprisingly, most do it poorly. The advantages of a formal apprenticeship program is that it can be designed and taught by experts.
Second, on-the-job training works well for simple jobs, but in an increasingly high-tech world, it may become too lengthy and expensive for companies to accept. In that case, businessmen and educators often engage in a lot of finger-pointing, trying to blame each other for the workers' lack of skills. Educators blame businessmen for not supporting apprenticeship programs, and businessmen blame educators for inadequate primary and secondary education. The latter charge is fallacious, however, because elementary and high school are for general education, not specialized education.
Many companies are learning the value of privately funded apprenticeship programs. Here is a success story reported in The American Prospect: