Commentary: How higher education is the key to skills and employment

Our future is tied to education.

If we want to stay competitive in the global economy, we are going to have to get a lot more serious about education — especially higher education.

Sure, colleges and universities could be doing a better job of preparing students for the Brave New World that lies ahead. They could also be putting more effort into directing students toward high-need fields.

And higher education alone is not a panacea for all of our societal ills, as Robert Samuelson recently pointed out in The Washington Post.

“The fixation on college-going, justified in the early postwar decades, stigmatizes those who don’t go to college and minimizes their needs for more vocational skills,” Samuelson argued. “It cheapens the value of a college degree and spawns the delusion that only the degree — not the skills and knowledge behind it — matters.”

“The real concern is the quality of graduates at all levels,” he concluded.

Samuelson has a point, but the overall trend is unmistakable. The future will require a deluge of highly-skilled workers. And education — in all its various forms — is still the only reliable route to becoming highly skilled.

The key question is not whether college is for everyone (of course not); it’s more a matter of what students who do choose to attend encounter once they arrive there.

Right now, the total U.S. workforce stands at just over 140 million. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that between late 2007 and early 2012, 5.8 million jobs requiring a high school diploma or less were lost. During this same period, the number of jobs for people having at least a bachelor’s degree actually increased by 2.2 million.  

According to McKinsey and Company, if the world continues on its present trajectory, there will be an international surplus of some 93 million low-skilled workers by the end of the current decade; roughly a third of those will be in developed countries like the United States.

McKinsey also estimates that there could be a global shortage of some 85 million medium to highly-skilled workers by 2020.

Finally, the Boston Consulting Group reports that by 2022, the U.S. economy could add as many as 14 million new jobs, most of them requiring some postsecondary education. They also note that by 2018, at least 63 percent of all jobs will require some education beyond high school.

Much to the chagrin of those who simply choose to deny the reality of whatever it is they happen to disagree with, the numbers don’t lie.

Those who choose not to extend their education beyond high school are going to be left behind.

The writing is on the wall.