If you want to know one reason why the nation's unemployment rate remains stubbornly high -- and why President Barack Obama is tackling the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers on reforming public schools -- just stop at the D.C. Department of Employment Services' dreary Naylor Road One-Stop Career Center on the District's Southeast Side.
On any given day, out-of-work residents step off buses and walk past shuttered stores into the unemployment office to attend mandatory employment counseling sessions or prepare résumés for their latest job hunt. While there are more white-collar workers -- many from the surrounding suburbs in Virginia and Maryland -- than in previous years, the vast majority used to work in old-school blue-collar work, office jobs such as executive assistants, and service sector positions such as hospital cooks and hotel maids. Many of them came through here before, looking for work before the recession began three years ago -- and will likely be back here again because they are high school unqualified for all but the most-menial of labor.
Those are just the D.C. residents actually looking for work. There are at least 38,491 residents in D.C. -- more than a tenth of the workforce -- who are either chronically underemployed (or haven't had a steady full-time job) or have gone a year or more without a job. Many of them are either high school dropouts or barely graduated from D.C.'s woeful public schools. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, their lack of education and skills would have meant nothing; they would have easily found some kind of gainful middle-class employment. But in an age in which many blue-collar jobs require an apprenticeship or tech school degree, most dropouts are shut out altogether. And no amount of federal stimulus package will do more than keep them on the dole.
For all the sparring between Capitol Hill Democrats and Republicans this past month about extending federal unemployment subsidies beyond the current allotment of 99 weeks (that's a year and eleven months, if you're counting), little has been said about the long-term jobless -- who will likely be a drain on taxpayers for decades to come -- and one of the most-persistent underlying causes of this problem: The nation's woeful public school systems. With some 1.3 million teens dropping out of high school every year (and millions more graduating with inadequate reading and math skills), even more will either land in prison, on welfare, or engaged in some less-than-legal pursuits. This will further fuel the growth of big government that is draining the nation's long-term economic prospects.
Almost none of this has been solved with the $600 billion in unemployment subsidies and federal stimulus dollars -- including subsidies for job-training programs that cannot solve the problems of illiteracy and poor math skills plaguing the permanently underemployed -- nor will it be addressed through future entitlements. The best solution in the long run is the one part of President Barack Obama's agenda that has wide bipartisan support: The array of charter school expansion and school reform efforts -- including the $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative -- now fiercely-opposed by the NEA, the AFT, and their allies among traditional public education and old-school civil rights groups. It will take an array of school choice measures, new curricula standards, an end of the system of seniority- and degree-based benefits and pensions, and a more-entrepreneurial culture within education to stir the future growth needed to overcome a $300 billion anchor on the nation's economy.
FOURTEEN PERCENT OF HIGH SCHOOL dropouts age 25 and over are unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, double the jobless rate for college graduates and four points higher than high school graduates. But that rate obscures the true level of unemployment. The employment participation rate for dropouts is a mere 45 percent versus 62 percent for high school grads and 70 percent for college grads; most dropouts aren't even working in the first place.
The problem is even worse for the newest generation of dropouts, who, unlike earlier generations, are coming into the workforce in an age in which old-school manufacturing jobs such as those in the auto industry are no longer plentiful. Fifty-five percent of high school dropouts age 16-to-24 are unemployed, according to the BLS' 2009 survey (the most-recent data available); this is double the unemployment rate for collegians and high school grads not attending college. Even worse, 52 percent of all dropouts aren't even working or seeking employment of any kind; since they aren't likely to be sitting in classrooms studying for a degree (and may not even be seeking a General Educational Development certificate), most are unlikely to be involved in any productive activity.
What kind of jobs can any of these dropouts get? Well, not many. They can't get any of the positions listed by Forbes last month as the top-paying blue-collar careers. This includes elevator installers-repairmen (average annual income of $67,950), who must spend four years gaining training for a job that combines electrical, structural and mechanical engineering skills; and electrical and electronics installers -- who work in power plants -- who earn an average income of $67,700 after earning an associate's degree and years of apprenticing with veterans. Save for commercial drivers (who must also attend technical school in order to drive big rigs), most of the jobs need the very kind of strong math and science skills required for high-tech white-collar gigs.
What else can't a dropout do? Well, there's welding in auto factories; gaining entry into an apprenticeship program requires strong knowledge of trigonometry (for bending metal into the right angles). Same for machine tool and die makers -- who craft the tools needed for every area of manufacturing -- who must also understand how to use computer-aided design software in their work. Since most dropouts struggled with basic reading and math while in school, it isn't as if they would get a handle on anything more complicated. The prospects are even dimmer outside of blue collar work.
Sixty-three percent of all jobs require some form of higher education (a wider array of learning than one traditionally thinks, since it includes colleges, technical schools, and even apprenticeship programs). This includes working in the auto industry, where 60 credit hours at a community college is the minimum requirement for gaining employment. Some will argue that the degree requirements are certainly just ways to screen out unqualified applicants (and note that they are waived for high school grads with years of experience). And that is the point. Save for the few who land in entertainment or bootstrap their way to entrepreneurial success, most dropouts are essentially out of luck.
For decades, federal and state officials have funded an array of job retraining programs to help get dropouts into gainful employment. In 1998, those programs were assembled under one roof through the Workforce Investment Act. Although this has made it easier for unemployed workers to seek out programs, it is unclear that this has helped make dropouts more employable.
The GED -- or "Good Enough Diploma," as comedian Chris Rock once called it -- was only marginally useful for dropouts of previous eras, as they earned less than either high school grads or collegians over time; it is even less-useful now. In June, a team led by Nobel Laureate James Heckman concluded that it has "minimal value of the certificate in terms of labor market outcomes." The most-recent effort at workforce retraining involves community colleges, the single-biggest destination for all college-bound students. But community colleges graduate just a fifth of freshmen in three years -- and most high school dropouts wouldn't even qualify to attend.
THE LONG-TERM PROBLEMS FOR DROPOUTS points out the single-biggest problem for the American economy -- and the single-biggest threat to the concept of small government most conservatives hold dear: A public education system that is hardly doing the job. Thirty-three percent of American third-graders -- and a quarter of all eighth-grade students -- read Below Basic proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Based on the high numbers of freshmen forced to take remedial math and English, it is clear that K-12 isn't doing much better with high school graduates either.
The fact that America's public schools were never really intended for actually providing an education, but for inculcating civic values (and to prevent the expansion of Catholic schools), is certainly part of the problem. But the other problems -- the low quality of instruction among America's teaching corps; the lack of high-quality school options for all but the wealthiest parents; and English and math curricula that would hardly match up to (often low) 19th-century standards -- can and should be fixed before more dropouts add stress to taxpayer's pockets.
Oddly enough, education reform is the one area where Obama may be on track. The $4.3 billion Race to the Top program has managed to spur states such as California and New York to eliminate (or modify) caps on charter schools -- the most-successful form of school choice -- and force efforts to bring private-sector performance management to evaluating the work of teachers (just 2.1 percent of them are ever dismissed currently). Although a clever form of unfunded mandate, it is at least one that can force education in the right direction. In D.C., for example, schools boss Michelle Rhee took a step in the right direction by sacking 241 teachers deemed unable to improve student achievement.
Some federal school reform money would be a lot better in the long run than another $750 million a week in federal spending that will only triple even if the Republicans take control of Congress next year.