The Georgetown Public Policy Institute estimates that 11 million jobs pay more than $50,000 annually, and that these jobs require some post-high-school education but less than a bachelor’s degree. A Manpower survey earlier this year found that 49 percent of employers were having difficulty filling openings for mechanics, drivers, nurses, accountants, and IT workers—jobs that need some training but not four years of college.
Yet the training programs that target these jobs are routinely shoved to the bottom of a crowded public-policy agenda, as Congress focuses on unemployment insurance, student loans, or college-financing programs. Gragg said that her biggest goal next year is making sure that job training isn’t forgotten when lawmakers start debating hotter topics, such as student financial aid or immigration reform.
On immigration, lawmakers are proposing that undocumented workers learn English to earn legal status. That proposal raises huge red flags for basic adult education, which is barely surviving now on a $600 million federal budget. “The system is already so overtaxed, if you dumped 11 million more people into it, it would be a disaster,” Gragg said.
Immigration is likely to be the most contentious debate in Congress in 2013. Obama has made immigration reform his top priority after “fiscal cliff” issues are resolved, and lawmakers already are staking out their positions on legalization, citizenship, and work authorization.
Education and workforce training won’t grab headlines, but they will be an integral part of the immigration debate. Democrats and Republicans both want to give green cards to foreign college graduates who major in science and math, although they can’t do that without also making it easier for Americans to enroll in the same programs. That’s why Obama’s campaign stump speech included a call for 100,000 new math and science teachers.
The student-loan issue will surface next year as well because the interest rate for need-based loans is set to double in July. Congress found a way to put off that rate hike this year, and lawmakers must act in 2013 to sustain the lower rate. The campaign to keep student interest rates low proved to be a potent election issue for Obama among young voters. He may go further in that vein next year, asking that student-loan repayments be tied to a borrower’s income level. That debate will also serve to push the tenuous link between college costs and first-job salaries into the spotlight.
ADULTS NEED SKILLS, TOO
The college-going population is not monolithic. In addition to enrolling full-time 18-year-olds with backpacks, colleges also admit adults who have jobs and families and go to school part time. Some of the older students are trying to start over after long tenures in jobs that have disappeared.
“This does not get enough attention in the education debate—what are we going to do about adults?” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, which focuses on higher education. Virtually all jobs created since the 2008 recession require at least some education past high school, he said, yet four-fifths of the people who lost their jobs in that recession have a high school diploma or less.
Obama’s dislocated-worker program could serve as a jumping-off point to match recession victims with employers. The biggest problem with his proposal is that it costs money, although Congress could put the mechanism in place now and fund it later. Lawmakers have been working on related legislation that would update the federal job-training system, but the bill stalled this year, and it’s unclear if the political climate will improve next year.
Although Obama wants community colleges to function as “community career centers,” the National Skills Coalition’s Gragg said that training dollars need to go beyond community colleges to reach 93 million adults with very low skills. That’s where the stalled job-training measure comes in, because it includes funding for basic adult education. “There are a lot of people who will never walk onto a community college campus, but they will walk into a community-based organization,” she said. These people often face an array of barriers to employment—family responsibilities, illiteracy, and the burdens of poverty.
Fortunately for everyone, skills development is bipartisan. Elected officials across the political spectrum recognize the need to help jobless adults find work. “Many Americans don’t have the skills to fill the jobs that are being created,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at a recent forum sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. “They’re not all kids. Take my sister. In her mid- to late 30s, she had not graduated from college.” With federal aid, he said, she got a bachelor’s degree and now works as aschool administrator.
THE TRUE VALUE OF COLLEGE
The weak economy has heightened the public’s sense that college is too expensive for what students get in return. It’s hard to argue that a $200,000 college degree is worth the money when you have to move back in with your parents after graduation because you can’t find a job. Moreover, many recent graduates who did find work don’t make enough to justify the high cost of their education.