Graduating College is Highly Overrated

That’s the headline I propose for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to attract public attention to its most recent projection of job growth in the next decade.   Though a tendentious conclusion from the BLS study, such a headline could draw the kind of bipartisan outrage that might lead to a more honest and accurate discussion of the relation between education, jobs, and income in these United States.

The BLS does its study of U.S. occupations every two years, showing the number of jobs in each occupation, its educational requirements, and how much it pays.   Though the specifics change, every two years the study shows that a large majority of jobs now and in the future require no education beyond high school.  And every two years the carefully compiled BLS data is ignored, leaving the field clear for everybody from the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to President Obama to proclaim that “education is the answer” to economic inequality, poverty, and low wages.

“Graduating college is highly overrated” is about as half-true, and therefore false, as “education is the answer.”  But each claim has some evidence to support it.

According to the BLS, in 2012 only 22% of all jobs required a bachelor’s degree or more, and of the more than 50 million job openings the BLS projects by 2022, only 22% will require a bachelor’s or more.  (In fact, if all you have is a bachelor’s degree, there are only 17% of jobs now and 17% of job openings projected by 2022 that require that degree and no more.)  Problem is that about 32% of the population over the age of 25 has a bachelor’s, and among young people ages 25 to 34, it is a bit higher at 34%.  In other words, there are only two jobs for every three persons who have a bachelor’s degree, and the number of people getting bachelor’s degrees is growing faster than the number of jobs that require that degree – or anything close to it.

Indeed, 26% of jobs in 2012 did not even require a high school diploma, and another 40% required only a high school diploma.  And the BLS projects that it will get worse by 2022, when nearly a third of all job openings will require “less than high school.”

There is a more ambiguous category of jobs that require some “postsecondary education,” whether an associate’s degree or some kind of specialized training certificate or simply “some college.”  But they are required for only about 11% of jobs now, and are projected to provide about 12% of job openings going forward.

The table below summarizes how overeducated our population is for the jobs we actually have.

Level of education

% of people over 25 with this level of education

% of jobs that require this level

Less than high school



High school diploma



Some college, A.A., or postsecondary



Bachelor’s or higher



We have an oversupply of jobs that require high school or less (66%) compared to the 42% of people whose education fits those jobs.  And conversely, we have an oversupply of people with some postsecondary education (58%) for the 33% of jobs that require something like that level of education.

Just looking at what jobs are now and will be available in the U.S. economy, graduating college seems highly overrated – and it might even be that “going to college is for suckers.”  If all you need for most jobs is a high school education, why bother with college?  That’s simple: wages.

A recent Pew Research Center study, The Rising Cost of NOT Going to College, looks at how income correlates with earnings.  As previous studies have found, high school graduates make $7,000 more a year than those who do not graduate.   Those with “some college” make an additional $2,000, and those who get bachelor’s degrees make $13,000 more on top of that.  The gradient could not be clearer: those with bachelor’s degrees have average incomes twice that of those without high school diplomas ($45,000 vs. $23,000).  What’s more, unemployment rates, poverty rates, and other things follow a similar gradient: the more education, the lower the unemployment rate, the lower the poverty rate, and the more likely you are to have full-time employment and employer-paid benefits.  Conversely, though there are and will be plenty of jobs for people who do not graduate from high school and for those whose education ends with a high school diploma, these jobs generally pay miserable wages – almost uniformly less than $30,000 a year, and most much less.

So, “education is the answer” has some evidence to support it, too.   But both statements are half-truths – not much education is required for most American jobs (now and in the future) and more education leads to higher pay and steadier employment.   It is only when you put the two half-truths together that you can see the whole picture.

If you are an individual 18-year-old, your only chance for a decent income is to go to college or to get some other form of postsecondary education.  Statistically, it will give you a 2 to 1 shot at a decent standard of living vs. a thousand to one for high school graduates and a million to one for those who never graduate from high school.   But if all 18-year-olds – or even most of them – play these odds by going to college, it will do nothing to remedy economic inequality, low wages, and poverty.   In fact, it would probably make all these things worse.

The increasing imbalance of supply and demand — more college graduates than jobs that require them — puts downward pressure on the wages of jobs that require higher education and ensures that more college graduates will be forced to take jobs that do not require college.  Pew found that more than one-third of the recent college graduates it surveyed were currently working in jobs that do not require any college.  Likewise, as more college graduates take jobs that require only high school, more high school graduates are forced to take jobs that do not require a high school diploma, and those who did not graduate from high school have great difficulty finding and keeping any job.   It’s a perfect formula for cheapening all labor.  More and more education is required to attain a decent standard of living, but as more and more people gain higher levels of education, they further flood those higher-paying job markets, leading to lower average wages and living standards for everybody.

The Pew study emphasizes the growing gap between the incomes of college graduates and non-graduates, but it also shows that the real wages of recent college graduates have basically stagnated since 1986.  The growing premium paid to people with bachelor’s degrees is almost entirely the result of 13% and 18% declines in real wages for high school graduates and those with “some college.”


More formal education may be an answer for individuals – and I do all I can to convince my grandsons of that.   But it is not and cannot be any part of the solution to economic inequality, poverty, and low wages.   The remedy for all three is the same: higher wages, starting at the low end and reaching up to frontline supervisors.  To get higher wages, workers with and without college degrees are going to need the kind of organized, disciplined collective action that we are beginning to see the first glimmers of among fast-food, Walmart, warehouse, and many other workers.

Those of us in higher education can help by developing a curriculum that will be relevant to those one out of three of our graduates who will not be getting jobs that require college educations.   They need courses in the history of American social movements and courses that teach organizing tactics and strategies for workplace, community, and political organizing, complete with “service learning” internships.   Those are the skills that are needed to raise wages and reduce poverty for the vast majority of American workers.  If we taught those skills, then graduating college might be a bit less overrated than it is today.

Jack Metzgar

More (Bad) Jobs: The Unexpected Consequences of the ACA

During Congressional debates over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Republicans and business leaders warned that it would result in the loss of jobs. In fact, their first attempt at repealing the ACA was called “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” But as it turns out, the ACA may have just the opposite effect: creating more jobs by splitting the work of the already underemployed. As a result, the growth of underemployment could be an unexpected consequence of the ACA.

The most notable example is Wal-Mart, the world’s largest private employer. After being a cheerleader for the law, Wal-Mart announced in December 2012 that it would join other employers in evading both the spirit and letter of the law. In the last year, it had already announced that part-time workers hired within the last 12 months would be subjected to an “Annual Benefits Eligibility Check” each August. Now, Forbes Magazine reports that “Employees hired after Feb. 1, 2012, who fail to average the magic 30-hours per week requiring a company to provide a healthcare benefit, will lose their healthcare benefits on the following January. Part-time workers hired after Jan. 15, 2011, but before Feb. 1, 2012, will be able to hang onto their Wal-Mart health care benefit if they work at least 24 hours a week.” Wal-Mart has insisted that it can’t afford to pay benefits, and it will avoid the ACA’s requirements by scheduling current workers for fewer hours and hiring more part-timers.

But the expansion of underemployment resulting from the ACA is not confined to the service and retail sectors. For example, my former employer, Youngstown State University (YSU), announced in November 2012 that it would limit the hours of all non-union part-time employees, including the part-time faculty who teach about 60% of YSU’s courses. Department chairs were instructed to cut part-timers to less than 24 hours per week. To make matters worse, all part-timers must now sign a form that states they acknowledge that the employer has informed them that they are not classified as public employees so the University will not pay into a state pension for them. Of course, part-time faculty and staff are among the lowest-paid workers at YSU, and any hope they had of supporting themselves by taking on more teaching is now gone. The shift to increased reliance on part-time and adjunct faculty is old news in higher education, but actions like those taken at YSU and elsewhere are making the problem even worse.  Like part-time retail workers who scrape by through multiple jobs at different stores, part-time faculty must take on multiple teaching assignments, becoming academic nomads, always moving from one teaching assignment to another.

Some may not even have that option. A new policy in Virginia will expand academic underemployment even further by claiming that the State is the employer, not separate campuses. This means that adjunct faculty can’t cobble together courses at various state schools without breaking the part-time threshold of 29 hours per week. Adjunct faculty will have to find work outside the state system.

Once seen as paragons of moral and ethical behavior, universities have embraced the market values of the retail and service industries. No doubt, the ACA provides additional incentive to expand underemployment in the academic community, contributing to the Wal-Martization of America’s public universities.  The effect might well move in the other direction, too.  As one of my former students suggested, it’s easy to imagine commercial companies justifying their limited-hours policies by pointing out that universities are doing it.

Cutting hours and creating more precarious jobs is only one of the tools employers are using to cover the expected costs of the ACA. Some companies are allowing workers more hours but requiring them to pay higher premiums and co-pays. We’re likely to see more of this kind of cost shifting, particularly in the low-wage service and retail industries where employers are not willing to reduce hours and avoid paying penalties under ACA.  Some employers might also reduce wages to cover increased costs and avoid penalties for not providing insurance. That is, until the minimum wage is reached, which could be another incentive to cut hours.

Other companies will simply stop providing health care coverage. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Congressional Budget Office has raised its prediction of how many people will lose employer-provided insurance from four million to seven million. The Congressional Budget Office has suggested that the ACA will cost the public more than originally expected, because more workers will be covered by the new health-care exchanges. The result will be large increases in government subsidies.

Employers’ efforts to avoid paying for health care contribute to another kind of cost shifting: from private business to taxpayers.  When companies increase the number of part-time, low-wage workers and refuse to provide health care benefits, states end out subsidizing businesses through the social safety net. For example, in 2010, the citizens of Ohio paid $64 million dollars in welfare payments to Wal-Mart employees. This will likely increase starting next year, because the ACA expands eligibility for Medicaid to anyone with income under 133% of the federal poverty level. Most Wal-Mart workers will fall under that income level.

It seems clear that many employers, especially in low-wage sectors, will do everything they can to limit workers’ hours or shift costs to workers or the public in order to avoid the requirements of the ACA. And I bet they’ll brag about how many new jobs they’ve created and how they’re contributing to economic recovery, without acknowledging the low wages and limited hours of those jobs. They’ll shift the burden to the growing working class, many of them part-time workers, who will have more insecurity, lower wages, and increased out-of-pocket health care costs.

Given the regulatory evasions, a single-payer system, like Medicare for all, would be better for both workers and taxpayers. After all, conservative business and political leaders said the ACA was first step toward universal coverage. Their evasions of the bill could make their predication come true. Let’s hope.

John Russo

Jobs and the “Fiscal Cliff”

My relief that Mitt Romney was not going to be our president, with a Republican Senate along with the House of Representatives, barely lasted through Tuesday night.  By my lights, a lot of terrible stuff and a completely wrong direction in our policy and politics have just been avoided.  Whew!  But after months of both Republicans and Democrats talking about the lack of jobs being produced by our lackluster economy, with political reporters, operatives, and pundits hanging on the next unemployment report as if it might be vitally important for the future of the republic — by the end of the week our 8% official unemployment rate (and Romney’s oft-repeated “23 million unemployed and underemployed workers”) was again just one of those inconvenient realities that we’re going to have to live with.

President Obama’s victory speech Tuesday night looked ahead to his second term and promised to focus on “reducing our deficit” along with some other things (“reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil”), with no mention of getting our economy growing at a rate that can reduce our debilitating unemployment and the damage it is doing to all of our lives, some of us much more than others.  Then, as the Wall Street Journal headlined two days later, “Political Focus Shifts to ‘Fiscal Cliff’,” and it’s all about budgets and the need for “shared sacrifice” and a “balanced approach” to easing the economy farther downhill rather than going off a cliff.

The fiscal cliff is not just about deficits.  It’s about jobs – jobs in an economy where there are not nearly enough of them for everybody who wants and needs them.  If the spending cuts and tax increases currently scheduled to take effect January 1st actually would take effect and then remain in place for all of 2013, it would reduce the federal deficit, at least at first, by more than $600 billion – that is, “cutting the deficit in half,” as the President once promised.  But it would also throw us back into recession and eliminate more than 4 million jobs.

Jobs and deficits are related.  Federal budget deficits (spending more than you take in in taxes) fuel economic growth and create jobs.  Likewise, stronger, faster economic growth creates jobs and, thereby, reduces federal budget deficits.  Without the annual $1 trillion deficits the federal government has been running since President Obama took office, we would still be in the Great Recession – or worse.  Right now, we need those deficits.  Cut them substantially, and you reduce economic growth and kill jobs.

Even though some Republicans deny it and almost no Democrats will say it, all the political players, including what is euphemistically called “the business community,” know these basic principles of macroeconomics.  They know that rapidly cutting the deficit in half – whether by cutting spending, increasing taxes, or some combination of the two in a so-called “balanced approach” – will send the economy back into its 2008-09 tailspin.  That’s why all the political players fear the fiscal cliff, and that widespread fear is also why we will not go over it.

But how we avoid the fiscal cliff matters.  And just avoiding it will at best leave us where we are, with a stagnant economy growing at 2% a year and with an official unemployment rate near 7% as far as the eye can see.  We also need to stimulate the economy immediately, get it growing fast enough so that it is creating 300,000 or 400,000 jobs a month (versus the recent trend of 150,000 a month).  This will increase the deficit in 2013, but it will also do more to cut the deficit in the long run than any spending cut or tax increase could do.

For a guide on how to avoid the fiscal cliff, see the Economic Policy Institute’s September policy brief, “A fiscal obstacle course, not a cliff” by Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse.  It’s very wonky and can be hard to follow in spots, but it’s only 13 pages of text.  And it has a wonderful table on page 7 that lists the various laws that expire at the end of this year and shows both how much each expiration will reduce the deficit AND how many jobs it will kill.  The fiscal cliff is not just the Bush tax cuts – which will lop $64 billion off the 2013 deficit if only the high-income cuts expire, but will also cut 102,000 jobs.  The cliff also includes Obama’s special recession-fighting unemployment compensation program (whose expiration will reduce the deficit by only $39 billion but will eliminate 448,000 jobs) and the expiration of the payroll tax cut (which will reduce the deficit by $115 billion but at the cost of killing more than one million jobs).

Bivens and Fieldhouse use these calculations to show how a jobs-sensitive strict cost-benefit analysis would lead to renewing (and even enhancing) federal government spending programs rather than renewing any of the tax cuts, while also showing that tax cuts targeted to lower- and middle-income workers create more jobs than those going to the wealthy and other high-income earners.  Tax increases do kill jobs, just as Republicans always say, but cuts in government social spending kill many, many more.

There is a lot of complicated economics here, and the politics of avoiding the fiscal cliff may be even more complicated.  I sympathize with the President and Congressional Democrats for having to work through these daunting problems while dealing with House Republicans.  But the President started on the wrong foot Tuesday night by focusing on “reducing our deficit.”  That’s a job killer if you do it now and if you do it the wrong way.  With an economy growing at 2% (at best) and an unemployment rate hovering around 8%, the very last thing we need now is to reduce our deficit.  Rather, first we need to preserve our deficit and the jobs it is supporting.  And then we need the President’s American Jobs Act with its increased spending for infrastructure and for state and local governments to hire and rehire “teachers, cops, and firefighters” – namely, the stuff he campaigned on, the promise of “Forward.” Reducing our deficit and a long-term plan for managing our accumulating national debt are for later, not now.  Right now we need jobs, millions of them.  And we need our newly elected President paying attention to that in a way he has not since February of 2009.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Education, Jobs, and Wages

Most people are surprised when I tell them that only about 30% of Americans over the age of 25 have bachelor’s degrees.  This is especially true of professional middle-class folks who went to high schools where almost everybody went to college immediately after graduation and whose friends now are almost all college graduates.  But it’s also true of people from working-class and poor backgrounds, who seem to think they are “abnormal” or “below average” because they haven’t graduated from college.  They’re not.  They are, in fact, the ones who are “typical.”

It’s even more surprising, however, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010 only 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, whereas 26% of jobs did not even require a high school diploma, and another 43% required only a high school diploma or equivalent.  And according to the BLS, this isn’t going to change much by 2020, since the overwhelming majority of jobs by then will still require only a high school diploma or less.  What’s more, nearly 3/4ths of “job openings due to growth and replacement needs” over the next 10 years will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30% paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars).

Put these two sets of numbers together, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans are over educated for the jobs that we have and are going to have.  It’s hard to imagine why anybody would call us “a knowledge economy.”   It’s also hard to see how “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education,” as President Obama famously said in his 2010 State of the Union Address.

I don’t want to say that these statistics on education and jobs expose widely held “myths,” because that word suggests things that are utterly and completely false.  It’s much more complicated than that.  Rather, I’d say that broadly speaking, about one-third of Americans live in one world, while another two-thirds live in a rather different one, but that public discourse – in the mainstream media, for sure, but even more so in elite media and the academy – is conducted by the one-third who are college-educated and have jobs with a fair amount of autonomy and/or a decent income.  This one-third mistakenly takes our world to be typical – or said another way, the educated middle class tends to mistake our part of America for the whole.  And the larger working-class and poor part does not have enough power or voice to consistently make their presence known to us.  That means we are subject to certain uncorrected illusions – mistaking half-truths and quarter-truths for the whole truth — even though we’re the ones who collect and analyze the data.

There is, for example, a large and growing “knowledge economy” in the U.S., requiring more than 6 million people with master’s or doctoral degrees now, with another 1.3 million needed by 2020.  But even with this faster-than-average growth rate, it will be less than 5% of the overall economy.   Even if we expand the definition to include jobs requiring any education beyond high school, the “knowledge economy” – now and a decade from now –will still represent less than one-third of all available jobs.  This is a lot of jobs, about 44 million now, and if you work and live in this one-third, especially in its upper reaches, more education can seem like the answer to everything.  Indeed, according to the BLS, having a bachelor’s degree should yield a person nearly $30,000 a year more in wages than a high school graduate.

But most of the American economy is not like this.  The BLS’s three largest occupational categories by themselves accounted for more than one-third of the workforce in 2010 (49 million jobs), and they will make an outsized contribution to the new jobs projected for 2020.  They are:

  • Office and administrative support occupations (median wage of $30,710)
  • Sales and related occupations ($24,370)
  • Food preparation and serving occupations ($18,770)

Other occupations projected to provide the largest number of new jobs in the next decade include child care workers ($19,300), personal care aides ($19,640), home health aides ($20,560), janitors and cleaners ($22,210), teacher assistants ($23,220), non-construction laborers ($23,460), security guards ($23,920), and construction laborers ($29,280).

There are still construction, mining, production, and transportation and material-moving jobs that provide annual incomes north of $40,000 (especially if they are union).  But even though all these occupations are projected to grow, some by above-average rates, in 2020 there will be fewer of them than there were in 2006 before the Great Recession, 2.3 million fewer according to the BLS.

The BLS produces its job-projection report every two years, and as I pointed out two years ago, it is consistently misreported in the mainstream media or (as this year) ignored all together.  This is partly because the just-the-facts BLS reporting style does not highlight the continuing growth of the low-wage economy.   But read it carefully – or just look at all the tables with an open mind – and I don’t think you can avoid two general conclusions:

  • As an individual, get a bachelor’s degree or you are doomed to work hard for a wage that will not provide a decent standard of living for a family.  You may not get such a wage even with a bachelor’s degree, but without it your chances are slim and getting slimmer.
  • But as a society, “the best anti-poverty program around” cannot possibly be “a first-class education” when more than 2/3rds of our jobs require nothing like that.  The best anti-poverty program around is higher wages for the jobs we actually have and will have.

If we were serious about eliminating poverty or restoring the credibility of the American Dream or simply respecting lifetimes of hard work, we would be debating how to raise wages directly – how to make it easier for workers to organize themselves into unions, how to get the federal minimum wage higher and on a steady inflation-adjusted escalator, whether to require some kind of workers council for all employers, and then legally require that the benefits of productivity growth be shared with workers.  We’d also be discussing how to use a more steeply progressive system of taxation to build a social wage that makes the basics of life – food, housing, mass transit, child care, education, and health care – cheaper for everyone, but most crucially for lower wage workers.

Those of us who have benefitted, financially and otherwise, from getting good educations should tell our stories and try to inspire others with the value of education in all its forms.  But we need to stop fostering illusions that good educations can ever substitute for the organized collective action – in politics, in the workplace, and in the streets – that will be required to reverse the increasingly miserable wages and conditions most people are facing now and in the future.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Mountains or Jobs: A False Question

In June, I was lucky enough to be among some 250 protestors who walked for five days from Marmet, West Virginia, fifty miles south to Blair Mountain.  We traced the path coal miners had taken in 1921, which culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain where several thousand coal miners fought the forces of Sheriff Don Chafin, including private detectives, mine guards, and deputized men.  The miners marched to liberate fellow workers living in oppressive company towns and to unionize the southern West Virginia coalfields.  Chafin’s forces repelled the miners, and Blair Mountain became a powerful symbol of the coal industry’s violent, repressive tactics.  Now, Alpha Natural Resources (formerly the notorious Massey Energy) will soon destroy Blair Mountain if we do not stop them.

On our first day, after marching about eleven miles, we arrived at John Slack Park in Racine where a small crowd of nearby residents gathered to shout obscenities at us and try to intimidate us.  We pitched our tents and ate our dinner while coal trucks and members of the volunteer fire department drove back and forth, blaring their horns for hours.  As I went to our group’s portapotty in the parking lot, a man drove by in a truck and called me a “mother***er.”  Then, at ten o’clock p.m., the Boone County Commissioner and the county police notified us that if we did not leave the park we would be arrested and put in jail.  The verbal commitment local officials had given our organizers had been revoked.  Welcome to coal country.

Appalachia Rising, a coalition of environmental and historic preservation groups, organized this march to protest the impending destruction of Blair Mountain.  The organization announced that we were marching to end mountaintop removal (MTR), to strengthen labor rights, and to support sustainable union jobs.  We did not aim to end all coal mining.

Why then did so many people have signs that read “Coal Keeps the Lights On” and “Coal Feeds My Family”?  Why did so many shout “Go home, treehuggers!” and “Get off welfare!”?  I had followed the issue of MTR from a distance, from my new home in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Like so many, I had to leave West Virginia to find a job, and I have great sympathy for those who are clinging to their jobs.  But I realized that the counter-protestors believed that the issue of MTR boiled down to a single choice: jobs or the environment.  We—the wild-eyed radicals—were on the side of the environment, and they—the working class—were on the side of jobs.

It did not take much research for me to figure out how some people arrive at this conclusion.  First, the media fuels this notion.  For its story on the march, the Wall Street Journal headline read:  “Coal-Town Puzzle: Mountain vs. Jobs.”  And CNN reporters who followed the march the whole week came to a similar conclusion.  The preview for their one-hour special—scheduled to air August 14—intercuts footage from an anti-MTR rally with another rally sponsored by the Friends of Coal where a speaker shouts:  “Whose jobs?”  “Our jobs!” respond the people.  CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien captured some of the poignancy of the march in her blog but simplified the issue in her title which reads:  “Environment vs. Jobs in the New Battle of Blair Mountain.”

The coal companies have also done their best to encourage local residents to see this struggle as one of jobs versus the environment and working people versus treehuggers.  In 2008, Jason Bostic, spokesperson of the West Virginia Coal Association, said that if the state legislature passed a ban on valley fill (meaning filling valleys with blasted earth) then the “economic devastation would be equal to a modern-day Great Depression.”  And in June, during the March on Blair Mountain, Bostic said:  “If you save Blair Mountain you’ll watch the entire social and economic structure of that community dry up.”

Finally, many of West Virginia’s politicians have also oversimplified the issue of MTR down to jobs or the environment.  On July 21, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for issuing water quality guidance that acknowledges the harmful impacts of MTR and states that the EPA will work with state governments and companies to “protect our nation’s waters and people’s health.”  This EPA guidance is not legally binding, but Manchin, choosing to speak for the people of West Virginia, issued a statement that read in part:  “Since the EPA hasn’t listened to the people of my state on this issue, I know that West Virginians would tell them that this guidance puts our workers in the coal industry in a tough position, jeopardizing their jobs, our communities and our state’s economy.”

The jobs-versus-the-environment question is false for several reasons, especially in the case of MTR and the March on Blair Mountain.  First, the “environmentalists” and the “workers” are not two separate groups.  Many of the marchers were from West Virginia, many from the coalfields, many from miners’ families, and some were even former miners.  And just as many people in the coal towns supported our march as opposed it.

Second, corporations do not have the best interests of local communities in mind.  As my friend and Mingo County resident Wilma Lee Steele recently observed, it is the coal companies who have been destroying communities in southern West Virginia.  MTR often requires companies to buy up whole towns—houses, schools, and all.  Those who remain see their property values drop to nothing, their water and air polluted, streams eradicated, and health problems explode.  People who think that MTR will help them preserve their families and communities are forced to ignore the destruction MTR coal companies have left in their wake and are forced to pretend that their jobs are sustainable.

The biggest fallacy in this particular environment-versus-jobs myth is that MTR creates jobs.  In fact, MTR destroys jobs.  One of the reasons coal companies use MTR instead of underground mining is because it eliminates workers.  Furthermore, the counties with MTR activity also have among the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the Appalachian region.  To add insult to injury, MTR only recovers a fraction of the coal that underground mining can retrieve.  If we were to force companies to solely mine underground (safely and responsibly), the environmental impact would be lessened, mining jobs would increase, and more of the coal seam would be mined.  Companies that say otherwise are focused on short-term profitability, not the long-term health and stability of coalfield communities and residents.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that working people have often had to bear the brunt of any change in policy or laws, including free trade agreements, spending cuts, andenvironmental regulations.  We need to do a better job of foreseeing economic dislocation, planning transitions, and building sustainable economies.  But I assure you, coalfield communities and working people will not be better off if we leave these important tasks in the hands of company executives.

Lou Martin

Lou Martin is an assistant professor of history at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and he researches rural-industrial workers in the twentieth century.

How to Build a Strong Economy: Education or Unions?

On May 15, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that

The American higher-education system has long been seen as a leader in the world, but confidence in its future and its enduring value may be beginning to crack along economic lines, according to two major surveys of the American public and college presidents conducted this spring.

The surveys, conducted by The Pew Research Center and The Chronicle, reveal few surprises to those of us who have been paying attention to the latest crisis of higher education, but several points underscore the different views of the purpose of higher education among education professionals and between those with degrees and those who have not gone to college . For example, of the 1,055 presidents of colleges and universities across a broad spectrum, including four-year, two-year, public, private, and for-profit institutions, respondents are split roughly in half on whether colleges should be about work force preparation or “intellectual growth,” and the responses fall along a predictable axis, with four-year institutions arguing for the latter, and two-year and for-profits advocating the former.

Equally interesting is the difference between college graduates and those who have not (or have not yet) attended college in their responses to the same question on the mission of higher education. According to Pew, those who attended college more often believe that the mission of college is intellectual growth, while those who have not feel it should be work-force preparation. As significant are the responses, across all educational levels, to the question of what a young person needs to succeed in the world: a college education comes in third, behind a “strong work ethic” and the ability to get along with people..

The Chronicle survey addresses President Obama’s statement in last year’s State of the Union address of a national goal that the U.S would lead the world in degree attainment by 2020, so that we can lead the global workplace. The assumption that America will regain its competitive edge simply by awarding more college  degrees seems naïve, , particularly when the same respondents to the Chronicle survey report overall “lower quality” of preparation on the part of incoming students. Indeed, few of the college presidents surveyed think the goal is attainable: only three percent believe it is “likely” that the U.S. will achieve this benchmark, while 50 percent say it’s not likely.

Compounding the problem is that, even if this goal were achieved, a college degree is not a guarantee of gainful employment, though university marketers often suggest it is. Just last week, Catherine Rampell of the New York Times cited a study by Andrew Sum of Northeastern University that shows that only 55.6 percent of 2009 college graduates are working in jobs that require a college degree, while the other 44.4 percent are almost evenly split between working in jobs that require no degree and not working at all.  In the current economy, and as Sherry Linkon and Jack Metzgar have suggested in their analyses of predictions about job growth in the service sector, in the long run, college degrees are clearly not the answer for everyone.

Indeed, in his response to Obama’s aspiration, Brookings Institute fellow Grover J. ‘Russ” Whitehurst noted:

Germany has a stronger economy than France but half the percentage of young adults with a college degree.  Further, France has increased its percentage of young adults with college degrees by 13 percentage points in the last 10 years whereas Germany’s output of college graduates has hardly budged, yet the economic growth rate of Germany has exceeded that of France over this same period.  Obviously increasing educational attainment is not a magic bullet for economic growth.  Education credentials operate within boundaries and possibilities that are set by other characteristics of national economies.  We must attend to these if more education is to translate into more jobs.

And what are those “other characteristics” that might generate a stronger national economy? The answer is ironic, especially as governors in Ohio and Wisconsin are pushing anti-union bills through state legislatures. According to several studies, one of the conditions of strong economies like Germany’s is not increased degree attainment but strong unions and worker protections.

Marc McDonald suggests that when looking at two of the world’s nations with the lowest jobless rates, Germany and Japan, what emerges is a common factor of heavily unionized workforces:

Take a look at two of the most heavily unionized nations in the world: Germany and Japan. Both nations are thriving and have jobless rates far below the U.S. rate. Both nations still have large manufacturing sectors, which are heavily unionized. And both nations are exporting more than ever—even to low-wage nations like China. (Japan, for example, is one of the few nations on earth that has enjoyed a trade surplus with China much of the time in recent years)… Not only are Germany and Japan heavily unionized, both nations have strong pro-worker laws that back up their labor movements. In both nations, for example, it’s virtually impossible to fire full-time workers. Mass layoffs are very rare in both nations.

While many would balk at the suggestion that the U.S. emulate Japan, with its notorious reputation as a stressed out, all-work economy, McDonald notes that, on average, Japanese workers work fewer hours than their American counterparts and enjoy greater benefits. McDonald argues that because workers are protected within these economies, the companies that employ them must think beyond the immediate and develop long-term strategies, rather than short-sighted policies that focus solely on short-term growth and quick shareholder gains.

McDonald may be on to something in his suggestion that as corporations —  and increasingly universities — clamor for the “flexibility” that non-union and non-tenure workplaces promise, they may be embracing a short-sighted strategy. Writing in Harpers last year, Thomas Geoghegan, urges Americans to “Consider the Germans,” and in so doing he counters the claim that what American employers need is greater flexibility and fewer fetters that come with worker representation. In considering the ways that Germany continues to thrive in high-market manufacturing he notes:

All my life as a labor lawyer I have read the same thing in The Economist, about the United States and its wonderful labor-market flexibility. What they mean is: Unlike the Germans, U.S. working people are completely powerless. But it’s precisely because of our labor-market flexibility that we can’t compete. Our workers have been flexed right out of their high-wage, high-skill jobs and into low-wage, low-skill jobs. That’s bad for the workers, of course, and it’s also bad for the economy. The German model—with worker control built into the very structure of the firm—keeps bosses and workers in groups, rubbing elbows with each other, and sometimes just elbowing. It creates a group interaction that over time builds and protects what economists like to call human capital, especially in engineering and quality control. It’s precisely this kind of valuable capital that our atomizing “flexible” labor markets are so good at breaking up and dispersing.

Both McDonald and Geoghegan share the belief that while America obsesses (with good reason) over China, that the model to emulate is that of Germany, with its strong secondary education system and clear worker rights’ laws.

What’s the connection between the value of a college degree and the economic impact of unions?  Just this: if our goal as a nation is economic growth, then we might do better to focus on the rights and status of workers rather than on getting more people to go to college.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

Welcome to the Informal Economy

It’s graduation season, and while commencement speakers encourage graduates to work hard and pursue their dreams, most new grads are worried about finding a decent job.  All their professors can suggest is that students use internships to gain valuable work experience and be prepared to have five jobs by the time they are 35.

Here’s the reality, grads: things are worse than you fear.  When you’re 35, you could still be looking for a good job. You’ll have a family to support, your salary could well be lower than you expect, and you’ll receive little or no pension contributions or health care benefits. Taken together, episodic work with little opportunity for advancement and poor wages and benefits reflect the characteristics of work life once found largely in the informal economy but now becoming all too common in the formal economy.

According to UNESCO, the informal economy involves the largely unregulated exchange of goods and services and is characterized by intermittent employment, short job ladders, and substandard wages and working conditions.  Historically, the informal economy has referred primarily to workers paid under the table, like many nannies or home health care aides, itinerant workers, and those involved in black market exchanges. But increasingly, the conditions of the informal economy are being experienced in the formal economy, though they are generally ignored or hidden by such glossy terms as consulting, internships, subcontracting, and privatization.

The economic crisis is pushing more people into the informal economy. USA Today reported that in 2010 only 45.4% of Americans and 66.8% of men had jobs. Both statistics are among the lowest on record, and now the United States has a lower share of prime age men in the work force than any other G-7 nation. According to David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, this is the result of early retirements, work disability, the decline of manufacturing jobs, and poor job fits in the new economy. Regardless of the reasons, the number of unemployed and underemployed people, who are most likely to participate in the informal economy, is growing in every sector and profession as the recession/regional depression continues. Many of those who do not have jobs are finding ways to support themselves, at least minimally, within the informal economy.  They have no choice.

At the same time, employers are taking advantage of desperate, young, less expensive workers, often hired on a temporary or contract basis, who are displacing older professional and non-professional workers or simply allowing companies to avoid committing to permanent hires.

As companies resist hiring full-time workers, and as young workers clamor for any possible job opportunity, internships have become increasingly significant in American business, and informal economy conditions apply to many internships.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, 1 to 2 million people today work as interns in the United States, and most are either unpaid and poorly-paid. In his book, Intern Nation, Ross Perlin reports that internships usually don’t conform to labor regulations, contribute to socio-economic inequalities, and rarely provide a useful job ladder – conditions that are typical in the informal economy. Offering college credit in lieu of an hourly wage does not necessarily mean that employers are free to ignore wage and hour restrictions. The U.S. Department of Labor has begun to take note of these problems and plans to increase regulation of unpaid internships nationwide.

Another growing category of informal workers is home-based caregivers. While some work through employment agencies, home-based employment is largely unregulated and dominated by non-white and female workers who earn low wages and no benefits. As more families need help caring for young children, disabled family members, and aging parents, demand for home-based care services has grown. Personal home and health care employment now exceeds 3 million and is projected to be the largest sector of new job growth between 2008 and 2018, with 1.1 million new jobs.  In the last decade, these workers have won union organizing and bargaining rights, but Steve Early reports that there is bi-partisan support among many current governors to rescind executive orders or pursue legislation undermining these workers’ attempts to improve their working conditions.  As a result, their wages will decline, their working conditions worsen, and they will sink even deeper into the informal economy.

So what is to be done? A number of labor and social justice organizations have formed the Excluded Workers Congress with goal of organizing workers in the informal economy, connecting them with grassroots movements, and developing strategic responses to informalization. They aim to challenge discrimination in the current labor market, build support for ongoing campaigns to improve working conditions, expand labor rights for excluded workers, and advocate for policies that support all workers’ right to organize.

Acorn International’s founder Wade Rathke suggests that there is no quick fix for the informal economy.  Rather than offering programs to retrain informal workers to enter the shrinking formal economy, he argues, we should “embrace the informal economy and engage in survival strategies that provide sustainable livelihoods and community redevelopment.” With short timelines and low investment, communities could organize  “localized informal workshops, training, production, marketing, and sales that can provide dignified, remunerative work for millions.” The work would range from home repair and rehab to food and bio-diesel production to recycling and technical repair services. He also advocates social networking to facilitate the sharing of job information, dispatch, and distribution and micro-lending adapted to broader social and community purposes. Put differently, he thinks the solution to the problems of the informal economy lies in changing the conditions of the work, not the workers.  Rathke wants to make work in the informal economy legal and formalized.

Most certainly, Rathke’s ideas may seem out of the box in advanced economies that often look for quick fixes. But as we in Youngstown know from more than 30 years experience, large-scale, structural economic problems don’t have easy solutions. On the other hand, the solutions Rathke advocates have helped alleviate poverty in developing nations. They may offer a more sustainable model of economic recovery, one that acknowledges significant structural and social changes.

That doesn’t offer much immediate hope for this spring’s graduating class or those being displaced within the formal economy.  The jobs outlook remains bleak.  But their long-term prospects might be better if, instead of normalizing the poor working conditions of the informal economy, we organized to ensure decent wages, reliable pensions, good health care, and greater opportunities for workers across the spectrum.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies