Recession Over? Not for Middle Class

| 21st Century Jobs, Higher Education

Both political parties agree that the 2012 elections are mostly about sustainability of the middle class and the economy.

A central issue is jobs, and a majority of economists say prospects are dire for short-term decrease in the US unemployment rate.

• An Associated Press Economy Survey released in late June predicts the longest stretch of high unemployment since the end of World War II.
• “Three years into the recovery, the US still employs nearly five million fewer people than when the recession began, and 12.7 million Americans remain out of work.” (Wall Street Journal, July 2)

What’s more, middle class wages haven’t grown in a decade and, at the economic low-end of the middle class, some people won’t be able to return to their previous middle-class lifestyles.

Not everyone is suffering, of course. Most in the upper middle class are actually recovering successfully. They may have needed to reduce their previous spending habits, but they have jobs (maybe not the same job, or at the same salary they were previously making). They are adapting. Life is feeling somewhat normal again for those with valued expertise – especially work skills in selected areas such as healthcare administration, nursing, engineering, tech support, customer service, financial services, auto mechanics, or entrepreneurial experience – and if they happen to live in states least impacted by the recession.

Yet it’s unlikely that those most vulnerable to falling out of the middle class have the job skills and job opportunities to get paid middle-class incomes. Their outlook is not looking good. Some may never get a good job again. They haven’t adapted well. So I propose some new rules.

New Rules: Contrary to some journalist stories, outsourcing jobs actually impacts U.S. employment less than replacing workers with technology like Internet connected kiosks, robotics, and online shopping services.

We can bring significant manufacturing back to the U.S., but many of the manufacturing jobs we lost to off-shoring will never return. The next wave of manufacturing will use even more robotics and other sophisticated technology; the on-shore jobs it creates will be for a small number of highly skilled workers with relevant domain experience. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these jobs to fill the supply of workers looking for jobs.

The job market has changed radically in terms of competition for jobs; and only those with advanced vocational skills and work experience are feeling that their job opportunities are good. Others are taking unpaid internships to get hands-on experience. This unpaid work may be more valuable than a college degree.

New Rules: Let’s take a fresh look at higher education and how we prepare – or don’t prepare – young people for the 21st century job market.

If better education means a better economy, then why can’t many recent college graduates with a good education find jobs?

One answer: Our best higher education institutions are living in an unsustainable, reality distortion field. They are pricing their institutions out of the market.

Since 1999, average student loan debt has increased by a shameful 511%. In 2010, total outstanding student loan debt exceeded total outstanding credit card debt in America for the first time ever. In 2012, total outstanding student loan debt is expected to exceed $1 trillion. – National Education Survey

When I was an undergraduate, a Liberal Arts program tuition was less than $3,000 per year. Today it exceeds $50,000 at some of our better universities. At the same time, when I graduated from college a Liberal Arts education was a reasonable ticket to a job. Today, even if one can afford the cost, a Liberal Arts degree is not enough to get a job.

Yet, for 20 years our most admired universities have been on a building binge, adding new brick and mortar facilities to their campuses and hiring new educators in emerging academic fields -yet unwilling to adapt their traditional Liberal Arts programs. As a result, four years of college, without scholarships, can cost up to $200,000.

University presidents are proud of their new buildings, new faculty additions, and new overhead talent. Yet they have created an unsustainable business model that America’s middle class just can’t afford. Middle class discretionary income is going down; higher education expenses are going up. America’s higher education is exposed to creative destruction in the post-PC cloud economy, just as so many other industries have been in recent years.

I should point out that I graduated with a Liberal Arts degree and I had some terrific professors and great courses. But the world has changed. I can stay in touch with art, history, and literature in so many ways that just weren’t available when I was a college student. So I’m not opposed to Liberal Arts, just the impracticality of spending so much money on it to get a degree that has little marketplace value and often imposes upon a middle class college graduate the stress of years of student loan debt.

New Rules: HD web video quality has really improved over the past few years. So have the number of online higher ed and vocational offerings. Harvard and MIT offer their most advanced courses online for free (but without a degree). So do we really need bigger, better college campuses if this means pricing education out of the reach of the middle class?

Here’s a video that takes a very complex subject of quantum physics and explains why the Higgs Boson God particle discovery is important.

This video is an example at how technology tools can help educators rethink delivery of course material in new, lower cost ways. As MIT professor Marvin Minsky says, “Multiple points of view help us understand better.” Kahn Academy has gotten a lot of praise for taking complex math subjects and making concepts easy to understand.

New business models like Jack Welch Institute are innovating how hands-on, vocational content, online video and lower-cost facility classrooms can disruptively price and deliver pragmatic work and management skills.

So, significant Innovation in education may not come from our traditional great universities. They have to deal with too many special interests. Look for innovation from the private sector and look to rethinking our community colleges, vocational institutes, and online schools as a test bed for innovation experimentation. Certified credentials may be more valuable for a job seeker than a college degree…especially a Liberal Arts degree.

New Rules: Member of my generation finished their education before they joined the work force. Now the most valuable vocational education at high technology companies occurs increasingly at your place of work.

GoogleEDU is formalizing learning at the company in an entirely new way, relying on data analytics and other measures to ensure it is teaching employees what they need to know to keep profits humming. Last year Google offered more classes to more than one third of its 33,100 strong global workforce going through the in-house program. – Wall Street Journal, July 5

New Rules: U.S. jobs are increasingly becoming organized around projects. Mobile collaboration services and virtual organizations are making this trend easier to implement. More workers are in temporary jobs and even those who hold permanent jobs typically stay with their employers less than five years.

If employment is different and workers are more connected to their projects than their companies, then it is inevitable that relevant work experience, domain expertise, and certified credentials of competence in a field are going to be important. Those who have these skills will be in demand by employers; those who don’t face a high risk of dropping out of the middle class.

When I graduated from university, vocational schools were looked down on upon as a second-tier track for students who couldn’t make it in college. Employers know this is no longer true.

Most Important New Rule: Timing is everything. We are in for an era of innovation in higher education learning, and it is likely to come from non-traditional sources. It will be driven by a younger generation of frustrated entrepreneurs who see the vulnerability of our traditional university system and understand the new rules for getting a meaningful, well paying job.