Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Under-Educated, Under-Paid and Over-Angered

On Tuesday, August 2nd, in my The Worst in Us blog, I explored the meaning of “making America great again” to Donald Trump’s most solid constituency: white middle-aged and older men who do not have a college degree. Unemployment and under-employment has hit this demographic very hard.
The candidate’s recent missteps in his unrelenting attacks on a Muslim war hero and his family, his attacks on high-ranking fellow Republicans up for reelection, have hurt him with white voters in general. “Trump’s lead among men fell eight points since last month, down from 14 percent to just 6 percent. And he now leads Clinton by just two points among white voters.” Washington Post, August 5th. The July unemployment statistics also show a drop in the overall unemployment rate to 4.9%, but his older, white-male-without-a-college-degree constituency remains fast. Why?
They yearn for the pre-1980s era where blue collar workers – not faced with the subsequent levels of corporate mergers/acquisitions/bankruptcies (read: layoffs and plant closings), automation and manufacturing outsourcing amplified by the Great Recession that decimated their jobs – could earn a middle class living. They honestly believe that Donald Trump can turn back the clock to a time when, from their earnings perspective, America was great. They are so desperate for that return that they really believe that the Donald can literally undo modernity.
Who are these people, and why are there so many of them in an era when it is clear that we need new skills and new educational level to exist in a modern, technologically accelerating economy? “According to numbers cited by the New York Times earlier this month, young white American men without college degrees overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. Men and women without college degrees accounted for nearly half the electorate in 2012, or roughly 64 million people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 97 million white people, 60 million men of a variety of races, and 23 million white men and women between the ages of 25 to 34 do not have an associates degree or higher. This gives some context for how many millions of young white men in the country have not gone beyond high school. Now this powerful demographic could determine the 2016 outcome. The Times's Nate Cohn doesn’t mince words: ‘It’s enough to keep the election close. It could even be enough for him to win.’” FastCompany.com, August 4th.
Even as college tuition skyrockets, financial aid plummets and student debt weighs down recent grads like knapsack full of boulders, you have to have your head buried in the sand not to be aware of the changing skillset-demands of the workplace in a modern world… not just here but everywhere. We may think we can shut our economic doors, erect trade barriers and return to a world where local manufactures dominate. Aside from the fact that those locally-made goods will result in cost-increases that will generate a consumer rebellion, the retaliatory tariffs and import restrictions imposed on American-made products and services will decimate jobs in any industry that relies on exports. Lay-offs and currency depreciation will be our reward.
The real answer is, of course, a vast and necessary upgrade in the skillsets of American workers. The vast hordes of the under-trained and under-educated simply are no longer worth those old wage rates for jobs that do not exist and will never return no matter what some may think. Imagine horse and buggy manufacturers demanding the ban of automobiles to preserve their jobs. It really happened. They really tried. Stopping progress requires a government that looks a lot more like North Korea than the United States. So why aren’t more men facing this reality and embracing higher education? It’s cultural, geographic and structural, based on decades and decades of practices and expectations.
Dewayne Matthews, the vice president of strategy at the Lumina Foundation, a private organization working to expand access to post-secondary education, offered several thoughts when I called him up. Since the 1980s, the number of young men who pursue higher education has increased only slightly; since 1991, women with college degrees outnumber men; in 2014, it was 34% to 26%.
“And this situation is not unique to the U.S. The widening gap between young men and women with degrees is occurring in ‘all industrial and post-industrial countries,’ Matthews said. ‘It’s spreading even into the developing world.’
“Why? ‘Structural shifts in the economy,’ according to Matthews. In the early- to mid-20th century, the U.S. was an industrial nation where young men with a high school diploma could find jobs that earned them middle-class incomes. ‘You could get those jobs in a lot of sectors,’ Matthews explained, citing manufacturing, natural resources, and forestry. ‘These were jobs that were held mostly by men—paid very good wages—and didn’t require post-secondary education.’
“Now the job market has drastically shifted and demands a workforce with at least some specialized skill. Demand for entry-level positions in dying industries like mining and factory work is waning, while sectors like computer science and engineering are continually ramping up. Matthews told me the story of an energy company CEO who began his tenure at the company reading energy meters. ‘Now,’ he said, ‘the meter reads itself.’ Which is to say that technology has made some jobs obsolete, all while increasing the need for specialized skills for even entry-level positions.
“And still, many young men continue to opt out of post-secondary opportunities. ‘You’re talking about generations of families in communities that were built around a certain type of work,’ Matthews said. Changing the culture of what young men do—or imagine they can do—for a living takes time. So is it any wonder that so many men from working-class backgrounds are heartened by Trump's promises that he will bring back coal jobs?
“‘Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, sees a more systemic problem. While it's true there are many young white men who haven't gone beyond high school, they are part of a larger group of low-income U.S. citizens. ‘The poor,’ she said, ‘have a lower likelihood to get a college education.’ And while there are a great deal of white men who fit this description, there are even more people of color—men and women—who do. In 2015, 54% of Caucasians between the ages of 25 and 29 had associates degrees or higher, compared to 31% of African-Americans and 26% of Hispanics.
“She added that there’s a prevalent perception by the white male population that they still could be able to earn an income with no advanced education. ‘The problem with that outlook,’ she said, ‘is that the world has changed.’ If people don’t invest in acquiring technical skills, they will be left behind. ‘Given that perception and given this reality,’ Smith said, ‘there needs to be better ways of encouraging low-income white males to enter college.’
“This perception is likely what leads these uneducated white men toward supporting more conservative candidates. ‘We've found,’ she said, ‘that there's usually a disconnect between the politics of a question and the economics.’” FastCompany.com. Investing in our future, from education, infrastructure and research, is the only path to economic stability and solid, good-paying jobs. Any other approach is nothing more than dust in the wind.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s time to stop believing that glib slogans without realistic implementing plans will solve anything or generate any economic value.

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