Is America's Skills Gap for Real?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My recent A&Q on middle-class stagnation questioned these proposed solutions to the problem: build more housing to bring down the cost of real estate, raise taxes on the rich, reduce the size of the social safety net, bring back unions, repeal NAFTA, and use the Fed to keep interest rates extremely low. The following reader proposes another solution, followed by my reply:


The problem isn't that workers aren't being paid fairly; it's that they don't have the skills needed to get paid more. We need a national apprenticeship program starting in high school so that people will be valued workers even without a college or technical degree.


Is America’s skills gap for real?

On the one hand, you would think so, with tales of star computer programmers pulling down vertiginous salaries in the Bay Area. This is exactly what one would expect from a skills shortage in any occupation. That job's wages would gallop ahead of the rest of the country, as business demand for a skill outpaces supply of workers who can do it.

But nationwide, programmer salaries haven't grown much more than average, even when you zoom into Boston, Dallas, or Austin. More computer scientist majors are graduating than the labor market is placing in jobs. In short, there just isn't much clear evidence of a skills shortage that would be easily repaired by forcing lots of marginal liberal-arts graduates into a vocational program for coding.

That raises another objection to vocational training: How confident are we that we can train students for more than this year's hot job? Oil and gas engineers saw crazy salary growth coming out of the recession, but now that the world is in a global energy glut, those once-great jobs are endangered.

The upside of vocational training is that you are prepared to do one small thing. The downside is that the world might not always need that one small thing. International research comparing vocational programs in Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland found that students with vocational educations are significantly more likely to be employed when they're young, equally likely to be employed in middle-age, and much less likely to have work by their 50s and 60s.

This isn't the 1500s, when farming was the major industry of the century, of every previous century, and for the next three centuries to come. In a dynamic modern economy, the industrial strength of a country can swing in multiple directions within a single lifespan—in the last 100 years, it has moved from farming, to war manufacturing, to general-appliance manufacturing, to retail, to a mosaic of services, and then, perhaps, to software. Education and worker readiness is not like buying a house, a one-time accomplishment. It's a process, and there is still considerable evidence that going to a more well-rounded college is the right way to begin that process.