What If More Education Fails to Fix the Jobs Crisis?

"Structural problems need structural solutions" PIMPCO chief executive Mohamed El-Erian tells Thomas Friedman in his New York Times column. And what better way to fix the structural damage in the our broken jobs engine than calling for a better educated work force? Friedman makes a familiar argument that technology

... is destroying older, less skilled jobs that paid a decent wage at a faster pace than ever while spinning off more new skilled jobs that pay a decent wage but require more education than ever. [his italics, my bold.]

So we need more education to respond to a world with more technology. Smarter phones and smarter grids require smarter workers. It's a parallelism, it must be true!

But what if it's not true? What if the largest, fastest growing job sector of the next decade have more to do with demographic changes than technological advancements? And what if those jobs don't require more time in higher education?

America is getting richer, but it's also getting older. As supply of old Americans grows, their demand to spend money on health care explodes. In next ten years, both the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the White House expect health service jobs to expand nearly twice as fast as any other category.* Six of the top eight jobs with the fastest projected growth are in the health care or medical science industries.

Do these millions of jobs require "more education than ever"? Many of them -- like biomedical engineers, and doctors, and nurses -- do. Many of them do not. The seven fastest growing jobs in the recent BLS survey don't require a bachelors degree. The four fastest growing health care jobs require nothing more than a post-secondary vocational award.

At a time when student loans have now eclipsed overall credit card loans at $860 billion nationwide, should we call for more debt-fueled education to prepare Americans for millions of jobs that only require moderate on-the-job training? Cities with concentrations of what demographers call "eds and meds" (that's education and medical jobs) tend to have lower overall wages. An increasingly expensive higher education system funneling students into middle/low-income jobs is a recipe for burdensome debt.

Friedman, who sees the future as a race between education and technology, might respond that education isn't merely a factory to fill the jobs that BLS expects. Education is also a factory to produce the jobs that BLS doesn't expect, because they're in companies and industries that don't exist, yet. That's fine, and right.

But don't forget about demographics. Sixty million boomers are retiring in the next decade, and they'll require millions of additional aides, registered nurses, and hospital clerks. Technology will continue to change and challenge these jobs, as it does across the economy. But if our answer to the structural employment problem is simply "more college!" we're ignoring how this health care groundswell could change the landscape of the American economy.


*Why should we trust the BLS to know what kind of jobs the next decade will bring? We can't predict the future. But one way to evaluate the accuracy of today's estimates is to look at how the Bureau fared the last time it tried to preview a decade in new jobs. When the BLS evaluated its 1988-2000 job projections in 2003, they made a few broad conclusions. First, health care jobs grew much faster than anticipated. Second, technology destroyed as much as it created. Specifically, technology destroyed where it could replace. It replaced administrative support workers, like typists. It replaced machinery assemblers, installers, and repairers. With online shopping, it replaced middlemen like wholesale and retail buyers, purchasing managers, and insurance, real estate and travel agents.