June 20, 2011

Not So Much a "Skills Gap" as a Motivation Gap

Justin Katz

Count this on the list of problems that will likely never be solved unless we change our approach to solving them:

On Monday morning, about 70 people — educators, government bureaucrats, elected officials and business representatives — gathered at the Community College of Rhode Island to discuss a problem that is only expected to worsen unless deep changes are made to the national system of education.

In the keynote speech at the Rhode Island Pathways to Prosperity Summit, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Brenda Dann-Messier said that the technological revolution over the last generation has transformed the employment environment.

"Gone are the days of the well-paying job requiring low levels of education," she said.

Although the article doesn't go into too much detail on the matter, one can infer the general character of the solutions that such a gathering would pursue. They'll seek to pour additional money into secondary and post secondary education, taking money out of the economy in order to make it as easy as possible for young adults to stumble into the jobs that they want to fill. But the underlying problem is much deeper, as one can begin to see in this quotation:

State leaders have long known of a skills gap in Rhode Island and have been working to find solutions, said Ray Di Pasquale, CCRI president and state commissioner of higher education. But, he acknowledged, the state needs to do more to cater to student needs to keep them in school.

Why should we devote resources begging people to act in their own self interest? They ought to want to pursue a path that leads them to high-paying jobs. If the route to a comfortable life is to stay in school, all that ought to be needed is for young Americans to be made to understand that — and to understand that hard work, dedication, and sacrifice on their own part is going to be required.

If we're getting a contrary message from younger generations, then clearly, we're allowing them to develop a faulty sense of life. Perhaps it's the emphasis on self esteem. Perhaps it's the rhetoric of entitlement that characterizes our public discourse. Or perhaps the eagerness of adults to make kids' path to adulthood seem easy conveys the impression that the world owes them something.

Whatever the case, what's needed are clear, direct incentives tied sharply to candidates' successes. The difficulty may prove to be that only adults will respond to such stimuli. The solution, that is, may be to let kids taste adult life and figure out that they're actually going to have to earn their employment.

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Or we need the Army to come out with advertising to the effect of:

"Are you lazy? Do you hate school and all those know-it-all teachers who just irritate you at 9 am with all their stupid questions? Are you sick of working the night shift at 7-11, snacking on Twizzlers and Red Bull only to have your father ask when you're going to college? If that's you, we have the life for you, the US Army. We'll give you something to do all day and we'll pay you, and your dad will be proud of you again...if that's something you care about anyway. Go US Army!"

Posted by: Patrick at June 20, 2011 8:07 AM

If only we could find a way to propel teens ten years into the future with the skills and education they currently possess, leave them there for a year or two, then back again. Nothing beats world experience, and experiencing that the world pretty much sucks when you're broke.

Posted by: michael at June 20, 2011 1:30 PM
If the route to a comfortable life is to stay in school, all that ought to be needed is for young Americans to be made to understand that — and to understand that hard work, dedication, and sacrifice on their own part is going to be required.

Problem solved. If only someone had thought of that sooner!

Posted by: Russ at June 20, 2011 2:27 PM

Michael, I think what you're describing is a gap year, or bridge year. I love the idea. I keep saying that unless there are some unusual circumstances, I'd like to tell my daughter, upon graduation from HS, don't go to college now. Go to NYC and wait tables for a year. Get an apartment with a few roommates. Go teach surfing in Hawaii. Go get a low-paid internship in a field you enjoy.

Basically move away from the home comfort zone and figure it out. Figure out what you want to do with your life, see how income/expenses work, see what you enjoy and then try to build a career off of it. I know I still would have gone into the same field, but I would have taken college more seriously.

Then again, there are lots of professions now, many of them well paid that don't require a college diploma. They just require hard work and often enjoying what you do. There's no shame in that either.

Posted by: Patrick at June 20, 2011 3:31 PM

It is not the young people. They are no different than the young people in past generations.

Almost all of the twentysomething young people I know have graduated from college (or in some cases, run out of money during college, because of their families' financial misfortunes) and have between $50,000 and $120,000 of student loan debt, with either no real prospects of a job or, if they're lucky, an entry-level position. Student loan debt is no longer even dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Young people were and are encouraged to attend college by their parents, for whom college was the first step on the road to a fulfilling life.

Now, anyone contemplating post high school education in light of the "education bubble" must be really positive that there is a payoff for hard work. Does anyone really believe that about any opportunity in Rhode Island?

Who wants to go back to school and incur more debt when you already have a five or six figure debt that you can't pay? Or you're contemplating going to college and you see your older sibling working at McDonald's with a B.A.; what would motivate you to continue your education?

A great number of professional or career paths a young person might seek to follow are constrained by regulation. Somewhere between 25% to 40% of all jobs now require some sort of license or permit. In the 1950s and 60s less than 5% of jobs required a
license or permit.

Because of the high cost of hiring an employee, companies no longer make the kind of investment in training that they once did.

And at many levels of business and government, it is patently clear that the only knowledge that really counts is knowing the right people.

Freedom is what will motivate young people. Freedom from the effects of government-created financial bubbles in certain “favored” parts of the economy. Freedom from crony capitalism which destroys the opportunity for non-cronies to succeed and which rewards failure. Freedom from a tangled web of mostly useless regulation. Freedom from the soul-sapping corruption which necessarily infests overly concentrated centers of power. A true free enterprise system will motivate enterprising young people more than any government initiative.

The fact is, we adults for at least two generations have allowed our freedoms to be taken away, or in places like Rhode Island, encouraged them to be taken away. And now our children are paying the price for that. Not just financially, not just in a diminished way of life, but most importantly, they are being robbed of the motivation and the opportunity to live a challenging life with the possibilities they choose to seek.

Posted by: Ralph at June 20, 2011 4:08 PM

Rhode Island rewards people for who they know and how well they can game the government system. People who actually have valuable skills realize this instantly and leave for legitimate states that reward ability and merit. Why should I have spent all my time and money attending fundraisers and making pay-to-play campaign contributions to a joker like Patrick Lynch just to end up in the same prosecutor position as some Roger Williams grad whose father is a state judge? No matter how good I am, I'd never be able to compete with the Iannazzis, Chafees, Lynches, Ruggerios, and Caprios of Rhode Island anyway. You can't compete with cheaters (except by becoming a cheater yourself).

Posted by: Dan at June 20, 2011 7:06 PM

I'm surprised that our own state university hasn't yet created a full fledged course in the liberal art of schmoozing, where one can settle for a bachelor's degree, work harder to earn a master's degree, or even achieve the pinnacle of RI success, a doctor of schmooze.

Now that's recipe for RI economic development at it's finest.

Posted by: swamper at June 20, 2011 9:42 PM

The keystone of our prosperity as a nation is entrepreneurism. The history of RI was founded by it. Into our liberal education system has crept the fallacy that a "good" education is all you need. "Good" translated meaning an elite big buck school. Education is fine but true success is akin to a Super Bowl champion. You need great players, team work, practice,failure,great coaching,luck and timing and a desire to succeed no matter the odds. The majority of schools are lacking in preparing todays students for global competition.

Posted by: ANTHONY at June 20, 2011 10:15 PM
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