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Where Will We Find the Jobs?

Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018

by Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl
Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workplace, 111 pp., available at cew.georgetown .edu/jobs2018

Math Works: The Building Blocks of Success

by Achieve
14 pp., available at www.achieve.org/BuildingBlocksofSuccess

The Foreign-Born Labor Force in the United States

by Eric Newburger and Thomas Gryn
US Bureau of the Census, 15 pp., available at www.census.gov/prod/2009pubs/acs=10.pdf


It may seem that high US unemployment will never go away and will continue to plague our political life. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that by 2018, the economy, growing at an annual rate of 2.4 percent, will have some 166 million paying positions, up 10 percent from a decade earlier, and close to a full employment level. Still, according to the same estimates,

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama with a graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan after he delivered the commencement address, June 2010
although the recession has had a short-run impact on the economy, the BLS expects that the accompanying slowdown in the growth of both productivity and the labor force also will have an important long-run impact on the economy…. During the next decade, the massive baby-boomer generation will be leaving the labor force, moving from the prime working-age years to retirement age. As a result, the BLS projects a 0.8-percent average annual growth of the labor force from 2008 to 2018, 0.3 percentage point lower than the historical rate of 1.1 percent posted from 1998 to 2008.1

Even if the goal of 166 million paying jobs is attained, we need to ask what manner of jobs these will be. A consensus is emerging that we are moving to a new employment era where old assumptions won’t apply. Some recent books and reports sound warnings and offer proposals, and notably, they focus on new skills and knowledge that will be needed in the workforce and those being prepared to join it.

The most ambitious is Help Wanted, a report by Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl at Georgetown University. In many ways, it carries into the future the historical linkage of technology and education that was explored a few years ago by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz.2 Their study begins by examining some 1,400 occupations and specifying—by economic modeling—how many positions each will offer, also in 2018.

According to their model, in that year, the economy will be employing some 573,727 bartenders, 8,827 paperhangers, 36,655 family therapists, and 10,049 facial surgeons. They also identify the level of education for those holding these and other jobs. Thus 19 percent of casino managers will have at least a bachelor’s degree, as will 22 percent of floral designers, and 18 percent of fast-food cooks. There will be considerable variations among the states. In Nebraska, 71 percent of its “financial specialists” will need a BA, while in Oregon only 63 percent will.

Carnevale and his colleagues conclude that in the decade leading up to 2018, this country’s economy “will need 22 million new college degrees,” that is, many of the jobs available will require college degrees. But the economy “will fall short of that number by at least 3 million.” (At another point, they propose a “goal of producing 8.2 million new college graduates.”)

Hence the report’s title: Help Wanted. It states that for the first time in a century, the United States will face a serious labor shortage; or, more precisely, a shortage of individuals having “the expertise needed to handle more complex tasks and activities.” Part of that expertise will be technical competence; part will be a readiness to accept new workplace arrangements. So they want to extend higher education not to make America a more cultured country, but because they feel that only college-based training will “fill the needs of sophisticated new industries.” Writing for himself, Carnevale has urged colleges to make it their “mission to help students become successful workers.”3

The figure for college-trained floral designers leads one to wonder why degrees will be expected in so many more occupations. The report doesn’t specify which major fields of study will enhance graduates’ job chances, nor is anything said about postgraduate study, which is now undertaken by half of bachelor’s recipients. Still, much is made of how “technology spreads throughout the economy,” hinting that advanced technical grounding, often acquired at college and not on the job, will be needed in many, even most, occupations.

Of course, vocational training has always had a place in most of our colleges. Every Ivy League school offers a degree in engineering. By my count, close to two thirds—about 64 percent—of undergraduates currently choose majors that are fairly directly linked to future jobs. There’s hardly an occupation for which bachelor’s degrees aren’t offered: apparel design (Texas Tech), addiction studies (Kansas Wesleyan), paper and pulp science (Miami University), court reporting (University of Mississippi), casino management (Florida State University). Such programs are meant to equip their students for what employers will want.4

Help Wanted is wholly silent about the liberal arts, which still account for more than 750,000 bachelor’s and associate degrees every year. It would have been interesting to hear the authors’ view on students who write senior theses on such subjects as medieval history and renaissance art, with a minor in digital illumination perhaps? Nor are we told what “skills” undergraduates like these may have that the new economy will want. Tony Wagner, the author of The Global Achievement Gap, who teaches at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has no doubt that liberal arts students do have skills. Indeed, he goes further, arguing that colleges shouldn’t promote syllabuses geared to specific occupations.

This has long been the view of colleges like Amherst and Pomona, which eschew vocational training, and whose graduates do well in demanding professions. Wagner reports that even high-tech companies “place comparatively little value on content knowledge.” Regardless of one’s ultimate career, he says, the first need is for more encompassing capacities like “critical thinking, analytic reasoning, written communication, and problem-solving.”

Certainly, abilities like these are much to be desired, and colleges like to say that this is what they impart. If students were made to do a lot of writing, and if these essays were returned with ample comments, one of these goals might be achieved. But I’m less sure about the others unless we know more about how they are taught. Just to focus on “critical thinking,” are we prepared to say that adults possessing degrees are more thoughtful than others who stopped at high school? For example, is the pondering that precedes their voting decisions of a higher quality? Whatever the answer, it can be said, from a variety of studies and reported experiences, that while at college, many students become more verbally agile and appear to frame their reasoning more cogently than those who ended their education earlier. This ability to articulate is one that many employers value.

College testifies to other things that are important, and not only to future employers. Having attended enough classes to attain a degree shows that someone can read and follow rules, as well as fulfill assignments to the satisfaction of professors. That they continued to do so attests to resolution, since a degree takes several years. A campus is also a middle-class milieu. For students from blue-collar or modest white-collar backgrounds, it exposes them to new modes of diction and behavior. Here professors set a standard; they personify a stratum their students wish to join. More selective campuses offer glimpses not only of powerfully connected classmates but of people, often alumni, highly placed in industry and government. Students may grasp some of the rituals and routines that successful people take for granted. That’s the reason why successful graduates of Oklahoma State want to send their offspring to Yale.


Most of us stand in awe of mathematics. Even if we have no occasion to use polynomials, we tend to accept the view that every teenager should study algebra, trigonometry, and some calculus. A consortium of governors and business executives called Achieve plays on this sentiment, asserting in their report Math Works that “all students—regardless of their plans after graduation—should engage in rigorous math course-taking.” Nor is this simply an academic goal. Young people are told that if they want decent jobs, they had better have algebra on their résumés; in the view of this consortium, even upholsterers and plumbers will need the equivalent of college mathematics. The group also warns that “Americans need advanced math to stay globally competitive.” Who has not heard that our high school students rank twenty-fifth out of thirty-four OECD countries in a common mathematics test, well behind not only Korea and Japan, but also Estonia and Australia?5

Young people are told that they will need mathematics if they want to be where the economy is heading: “growth in math-intensive science and engineering jobs is outpacing overall job growth by three to one.” There is a kernel of truth here. More than ever, societies depend on mathematics. Without its algorithms, mechanisms we take for granted simply wouldn’t function. Prices of airline tickets are set by algebraic formulas, while the planes themselves are designed by differential equations. Ours is an era of high-tech products, from laptop browsers to multipurpose telephones; from video games preteens play to the derivatives traded in financial markets. Apple and Google and companies that compete and cooperate with them will always need people who can deploy mathematics they learned in high school and refined in college.

All the same, the numbers in Math Works need a little scrutiny. True, there will be significant growth in some high-tech occupations. In the 2008–2018 decade, the number of biochemists will rise by 37 percent, with a 31 percent increase in environmental engineers. But what the report doesn’t say is that fields like these will still be relatively small specialties. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that these two together will add about 25,000 new jobs.) In fact, as will be seen, the employment explosions will be far from the high-tech scene in which advanced algebra may be required to do a job.

Even more striking is the emphasis on tests and scores one finds in Math Works. “If the US could improve its math and science achievement so that its students become globally competitive,” they say, “the US gross domestic product could eventually grow by an additional 36 percent.”

This is a huge claim. It would be a phenomenal increment to any nation’s GDP, let alone one as developed as the United States. Their surmise seems to be that bringing our teenagers’ scores up to those of Estonia and Korea would require such vast educational and social changes that we would be a very different country. Can we visualize an America where our overall student population would match Singapore’s in elliptic geometry?

In fact, relatively few jobs require using mathematics—algebra, calculus, or trigonometry—for working tasks. Tony Wagner consults with American executives, who voice many complaints about applicants they see, particularly about their abilities to grasp new situations and express themselves clearly. Yet even at high-tech firms, he says, “knowledge of mathematics did not even make the top-ten list of the skills employers deemed most important.” David Edwards, who teaches engineers at the University of Georgia, admits that most jobs they’ll take won’t need more than eighth-grade mathematics, which means being competent in basic arithmetic. And when recruiters meet his computer science students, they’re also told that the positions they’ll be filling won’t require mathematics.6

  1. 1

    Ian D. White and Kathryn J. Byum, “The US Economy to 2018: From Recession to Recovery,” Monthly Labor Review, November 2009. 

  2. 2

    Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2008). See my review, ” Can We Make America Smarter?,” The New York Review, April 30, 2009. 

  3. 3

    Anthony Carnevale, “Ours Is a Society Based on Work,” On Campus, January/February 2011, p. 3. 

  4. 4

    It has also been argued that supposedly practical programs have little relation to the world of work, but only exist to stamp students as “qualified.” Forty years ago, Ivar Berg published Education and Jobs, a tract best known for its subtitle, “The Great Training Robbery.” Praising it in these pages, Lawrence Stone alluded to “the purposeless certification mania which now threatens to deflect the universities from their true tasks.” See ” The Ninnyversity?,” The New York Review, January 28, 1971. 

  5. 5

    See Highlights from PISA 2009, National Center for Education Statistics, December 2010, p. 18. 

  6. 6

    David A. Edwards, “Revolutionary Implications,” Notices of the American Mathematical Society, August 2010, p. 822. 

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