The folly of government picking occupations

Interesting Wall Street Journal article entitled “Forget B-school, D-school is hot”. D for arts and design schools. Demand for these schools is growing as is private sector companies interest in hiring graduates. The article mentions Electronic Arts, JetBlue Airways, SAP, Intuit, P&G , Google, Nike and Fidelity Investments.

This is consistent with the ideas in Daniel Pink’s must read book A Whole New Mind. The best book I have read on the future of jobs. Pink argues persuasively that our economy is increasing going to demand right brain, rather than left brain, jobs. Left brain jobs being the easiest to automate and outsource.

So how does this square with the critical skills area list Lansing policy makers have included in the higher education funding bill? Not at all! No arts and design occupations on their critical skills list. With the exception of architecture (interestingly the professional occupation with the highest current unemployment rate) every occupation on the list is left brain dominant.

Which, of course, raises the question “Who would you rather have deciding which occupations to prepare for in the future: State government or higher education institutions responding to constantly shifting demand of students and private sector employers?”  How it is that Lansing policy makers think they should get out of the business of picking industries but get in the business of picking occupations is hard to imagine. The odds are they are going to be as inept at the latter as they have been the former.

The folly of government picking occupations is brilliantly described by Virginia Postrel in a Bloomberg article entitled: “How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy”. Highly recommended! She writes:

The higher-education system does have real problems, including rising tuition prices that may not pay off in higher earnings. But those problems won’t be solved by assuming that if American students would just stop studying stupid subjects like philosophy and art history and buckle down and major in petroleum engineering (the highest-paid major), the economy would flourish and everyone would have lucrative careers.That message not only ignores what students actually study. It also disregards the diversity and dynamism of the economy, in good times as well as bad. … The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today. … The most valuable skill anyone can learn in college is how to learn efficiently — how to figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems. … The argument that public policy should herd students into Stem fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.

One of Michigan’s greatest assets is its system of autonomous universities. That autonomy – provided for in the state constitution – helped build one of America’s great higher education systems in the 20th Century and gives us the best chance to have the agile higher education institutions required in the 21st Century to meet the needs of workers and employers in an economy constantly being altered by globalization and technology.

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