Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announces our nation’s unemployment rate, and with the announcement comes plenty of predictable partisan banter. When rates are low, the party that is not in control of the White House will do their best to indicate how the numbers are flawed, and when rates are high, the party in power will do their best to spin the numbers in light of how they could’ve been much worse and that they are on a path to improvement. It’s all very predictable.
As of May, the unemployment rate in the United States stood at 5.5 percent, and while this number is among the best we’ve seen over the last decade, I’d argue that we are facing a tremendous hurdle if we wish to take these numbers well below 5 percent.
Time and again, we hear elected officials and candidates talk about the need to fill the millions of empty employment opportunities in our nation. That conversation is usually accented with talk of the need to increase the skill sets of working Americans in order to further their employability.
While it is true that the strength and peace of the society is significantly hinged upon the number of individuals who are gainfully employed, the motivation behind the conversation stems from a more practical place where a deep awareness of our nation’s financial shortcomings are intimately intertwined with academia.
In late 2014, researchers from the London-based Centre for Economic Research set out to determine the cost that our nation’s skills gap has on companies and determined that the number was over $13 billion a month. That’s almost $160 billion per year.
From their work came two determinations: that the revenues and profits of companies suffer as they miss out on potential input and that those who are unemployed or who have low-skilled jobs spend less money. When this scenario is placed up against a society’s economy that functions largely by consumerism, you’ve got yourself a fairly complex and expanding problem with an equally complex set of potential solutions.
If the primary root of the problem is a lack of skill sets that would enable a greater pool of people to obtain these jobs, then naturally we would turn our attention to the barriers that people face when they wish to seek advanced degrees.
Several organizations have started programs to address this issue. Among the many is the Lumina Foundation, which recently launched Goal 2025.
Through this initiative, the foundation seeks to raise the number of Americans who possess a college degree, certificate or other postsecondary credential to 60 percent by 2025. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s “American Community Survey,” only “40 percent of working-age Americans have at least a two-year degree – an 0.6 percentage-point increase over the previous year’s rate of 39.4 percent.”
The state of Arkansas lags significantly behind the national average at 28.8 percent and it’s worth nothing that our state has yet to the exceed 30 percent.
So how do we turn this shortfall around and boost our state’s economy?
If the answer is education, then what is the most major barrier for people who wish to obtain post-secondary degrees? Many would argue that it is a combination of concern over increasing tuition rates and the responsibility of student loan debt without the prospect of a job.
In the report highlighting the Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025, the organization calls for our nation to “accelerate the rate at which overall attainment increases” and to “close the significant, persistent gaps in postsecondary attainment among various segments of the population.” Among the recommendations made by the foundation to address these low numbers, particularly for our state, were efforts to align investments with state priorities and student needs, and to create smarter pathways for students.
I couldn’t agree more.
After comparing the unemployment rates of the top ten Arkansas counties with the lowest levels of post-secondary degrees, what I discovered was that 6 of the 10 have rates well above the current national average of unemployment, and that all but one county was below the national average.
So if we want our state to do better and if we want to enable our companies and local economies to earn a piece of that $160 billion that gets lost each year, shouldn’t we start with our counties that deserve better?
While many will argue that the majority of these counties suffer due to lack of economic development – which would not be incorrect – there is plenty of data that shows how rethinking our efforts to expand academic opportunities cannot happen soon enough.