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


Norman Rockwell Family Agency

Norman Rockwell: Willie Gillis in College, 1946; from ‘Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,’ a recent exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The catalog is published by Abrams.

What is wanted is competence with numbers: multiplication, division, decimals, and ratios and proportions as well as deciphering statistics and estimating probabilities. This is the view of General Electric, which recently opened a plant for producing parts for jet engines, using computer codes to shape carbon-fiber fabrics. By any measure, this is meticulous work. Yet the company decided to locate the operation in Panola County, Mississippi, well aware that its schools don’t score notably in mathematics. GE feels that if applicants have good attitudes, it can teach them what they need to know.


Phillip Brown and his colleagues acknowledge in The Global Auction that the United States is “a knowledge-driven economy.” But they don’t agree that this in itself “accelerates the demand for employees with a college education.” Their reason is that even if American graduates have needed knowledge and skills, what they offer can be found elsewhere at a much lower cost. The Global Auction argues that there is now a plenitude of “cheap brainpower,” available from a “high-skill, low-wage workforce” largely outside the US. Even now, high-tech tasks are being outsourced to other countries, and not just for turning out toys. Asian engineers now build entire industrial systems, even if they borrow from models created elsewhere. GE will be producing in China as well as for China. Medical clinics in Singapore have found no loss in quality when they send X-rays for analysis by Indian radiologists. Some American law firms now beam much of their clients’ work to Indian attorneys. Your tax return may have been processed by accountants in Mumbai. It’s one thing to lose a competitive edge in making consumer products; it’s another to find that professionals in other countries have minds and skills as good as ours but at cheaper rates.7

From almost the start, the authors of The Global Auction write, Americans have believed in “investing in themselves through learning.” But where training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is concerned, that advice may already be outdated. Even now, they say, “the STEM workforce in the United States totals about 4.8 million, which amounts to less than a third of the 15.7 million workers who hold at least one STEM degree.” Those 4.8 million jobs represent the extent of currently paid positions; more can be added only if employers find it worth their while. Nor are STEM professions always the basis for long-term careers. Top pay for electronic engineers seldom rises above $130,000, so as they approach forty, many move over to sales or management. Nor are things much better at the start. A recent study of engineering schools found that from 37 percent to 66 percent of their students did not finish with a degree in the field.


Measured by births, the United States is no longer reproducing itself. To replace a population, the rule of thumb is that every 100 women must end up having 210 children. The most recent count, for 2008, puts our rate at 208. For black women the figure is 211, for Asians it is 205, while whites are at 183. Hispanic women keep the national quotient up by having 291 children. Even so, the total population is increasing, thanks to the arrival of immigrants, with or without the required documents.

Whether America actually needs immigrants is, of course, much debated. It is worth examining their current contribution to the labor force. A Census Bureau report, The Foreign-Born Labor Force in the United States, contains figures for 2007, the most recent we have. It shows that nonnative workers made up about 16 percent of the total labor force. More specifically, they account for 72 percent of California’s farm workers, 41 percent of New York’s hotel and restaurant staffs, and 32 percent of Florida’s construction workers. It’s no secret that employers like recent immigrants, because they settle for lower wages and won’t complain about working conditions. But it’s not just businesses that profit. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pointed out, “Everything we eat today is picked and created by undocumented immigrants, to a large extent.”8 The rest of us pay less than we otherwise would for child care and lawn work, not to mention the cutlets that immigrants carve at packing plants. So our latest arrivals are subsidizing the rest of us, as they have for most of this nation’s history.

Many are already in the middle class. Fully 26 percent of US physicians are now foreign-born, as are 28 percent of resident Ph.D.s. The earnings of Asian-Americans aged thirty-five to forty-four are 16 percent higher than those of native-born whites. Even more striking, 71 percent of Asian-Americans have bachelor’s degrees or better, whereas only 37 percent of whites do.

On the entrepreneurial side, Pakistani and Indian newsstands, Korean manicure salons, and Mexican restaurants are now national fixtures. Each year the Forbes 400 and the Fortune 500 list more foreign-born executives and entrepreneurs, like Sergey Brin of Google and Indra Nooyi of Pepsi-Cola. Or, for that matter, George Soros and Felix Rohatyn. Their presence on these rosters means that they have moved ahead of, and also benefited, colleagues or competitors who had been born and raised here. Every so often, I find myself repairing to Alexander Hamilton: “It is in the interest of the United States to open every possible avenue to emigration from abroad…of ingenious and valuable workmen in different arts and trades.”


To say, as Help Wanted does, that we are not producing enough college graduates to satisfy future demands seems doubtful at best. Even in prosperous times, not all graduates obtain jobs typically associated with a degree. In 2006, while the economy was still bubbling, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 17 percent of bartenders had completed college, as had 32 percent of massage therapists and 26 percent of fashion models. Rather than a shortage of graduates, we have a shortfall of the kinds of jobs they often see as their due. Even so, we shouldn’t assume, Paul Barton of the Educational Testing Service reminds us, “that if someone who has been to college is employed at a job, that the job requires someone who has been to college.”9

When we look at jobs that will show the largest numerical growth, few require extensive training, let alone a college credential. Needless to say, there will still be plenty of high-tech and professional positions. There will be more enterprises like Facebook, needing skilled staffs. Estimates for 2018 see employment for 1.2 million software engineers, some 300,000 more than are working now.

During the century that has just ended, the economy was dominated by huge industries—steel mills, assembly plants, even railroads—which provided critical masses of stable jobs. In 1955, General Motors alone employed 625,000 people. (Its current counterpart is Wal-Mart, whose 2.1 million workers turn over often and are not nearly as well paid.) Today, “information” is much more crucial in production, and its deployment calls for highly technical skills. Indeed, it isn’t possible to count how many Americans are employed in this sphere, since they are now in almost every workplace, from hospitals to online retailing to theatrical productions. Nor will this be a surprise to young Americans—the coming workforce—who have been raised amid electronics, beginning in the delivery room.


Concurrently, there will be increased hiring in other fields. The table on this page gives figures for some of them, from an appendix in Help Wanted. All are on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of fastest-growing occupations, this time measured in actual numbers. They foresee more dining out, more elderly people needing attention, and more dialing 800 numbers to get pension and other matters straightened out. More truck drivers will deliver online purchases. But few of these jobs will call for college credits, and their pay is unlikely to vary much from current medians, which for men is $41,089, and $29,867 for women.

So a two-tier economy seems likely to continue. The Gini coefficient, an index used by the Census Bureau, reveals that earnings inequality has increased by 22 percent since 1980. Another measure, also with a 1980 base, shows that the share of aggregate income ascending to the top one twentieth of all households has expanded by 32 percent. Sending more people to college or having them master mathematics may alter these ratios but there’s no clear evidence that it will, since they have primarily changed as a result of factors such as enormous increases in compensation for high-level executives, not in levels of employment.

Still, there are many instances where employers demand college credentials, even if they have no palpable relation to the work to be done. There are the obvious reasons: for instance, demanding a degree reduces the pile of résumés to be sifted through. Requiring college attendance also raises the status of an occupation, indeed, helps to transform it into a profession. Hospitals want to be able to say that their nurses are bachelors of science, while veterinary technicians get nearer to being nurses by having associate’s degrees.


If appreciably more students are to extend their schooling, that will obviously have a cost. Help Wanted calculates that “producing 8.2 million new college graduates would require an increase of $158 billion” to higher education budgets. They don’t say how they arrived at that figure; but I’ll assume that half will be new bachelor’s degrees and half will be at the associate level, largely from two-year community colleges. Costs of course vary; Swarthmore has been spending $66,785 per student, even before room and board. So I’ve picked two more typical schools: Colorado State University in Fort Collins and Lamar Community College at the eastern end of the state. The former spends $25,656 annually on each of its students; the latter, $7,912. At those rates, the 8.2 million new graduates would cost about $550 billion, three and a half times the Georgetown estimate, again omitting living costs. Personally, I would like to see more young people entering and completing college. Prospective plumbers should be exposed to Socrates and the basics of DNA. But if our ideal is Swarthmore-type seminars for everyone, we shouldn’t delude ourselves about the tab.

Can the charges for college be reduced? Robert Archibald and David Feldman, both economists at the College of William and Mary, don’t think they really can. A fact of modern economic life, they say in Why Does College Cost So Much?, is that “all industries that use highly educated labor have had to pay more for their major service providers.” They show that billings by law firms, dental offices, and financial services have risen at the same rate as college tuitions; personal attention by professionals can’t come cheaply. All are essentially “artisan-type institutions” that rely on “face-to-face interaction.” They also note that college laboratories and libraries, even classrooms, now need computers and expensive gear to impart “a different type of knowledge and a different package of skills.”

Archibald and Feldman add that “the prestige game” gives schools no choice but to reduce teaching loads of valued professors in order to keep them; the schools also feel they have to provide career and counseling centers for students, as well as house them in “palatial dormitories.” Archibald and Feldman take such competitive goads as given. As for improving productivity, they feel that online courses can’t fully convey the “gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions” that enhance education in physical classrooms. Surprisingly, they don’t mention athletics, even though the vast majority of varsity teams lose money. Their own William and Mary lays out more than $17 million annually to fund its nineteen intercollegiate programs, which include a 101-man football squad with thirteen coaches, a contingent larger than its philosophy department.

If more graduates are wanted or needed, there’s a simple solution: ensure, through financial help and better teaching and counseling, that more of those who begin college stay to get a degree. If we look at Americans in their early thirties who once enrolled, 56 percent now have at least a bachelor’s degree. An additional 15 percent completed associate’s programs; but less than a fifth of them continued at four-year colleges. This leaves 29 percent who began on one or another campus but never graduated. For those who drop out, the most common nonfinancial reason is that the initial years can be impersonal, aimless, without good advice. At Ohio State, 623 freshmen take Biology 101 in a yawning room, with their exams graded by computers. One section of Economics 201 at Michigan State has 578 students, so most only see the professor from a distant row. My own years in the classroom have convinced me that all young people have capacities to learn and are curious about the world. But our colleges will have to examine many wasteful, perfunctory, and senseless practices if they want to call what they are doing higher education.

This Issue

February 24, 2011