Education for a forty-year career

The centerpiece of our education policy agenda is that our education system should prepare students not for a first job, but for a forty-year career. The dominant narrative today seems to be the opposite – that we need to tie education far more with immediate workforce needs, preparing more young people for occupations like welders and coders.

A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote about research that looks at the tradeoffs between the two approaches.

The research, by Stanford’s Eric Hanushek as well as economists from Germany and China, looks at employment outcomes for those completing general versus vocational education tracks in a range of countries, across the span of their entire careers.

Their findings are pretty important.

The researchers found that those who followed a vocational or apprenticeship pathway had better early employment outcomes than comparable individuals who completed a general education pathway, particularly in countries like Germany and Switzerland, in which apprenticeship programs are plentiful and tied closely with industry needs. The vocational education system is set up to serve the immediate needs of employers, and vocational pathways do indeed seem to lead to immediate employment and better paying work.

However, as workers progress through their careers, the benefits of general education win out. Throughout their careers, workers with a general education – and the stronger cognitive skills that come with more time spent in general education – are more likely to be employed, at higher pay. And one of the reasons is that those with a general education and a stronger set of cognitive skills are better able to adjust to technological change and continue their education, when yesterday’s in-demand jobs become today’s non-existent jobs.

These findings match the current data we have about the U.S. labor market, and how it’s been impacted by technological change. Jobs requiring a more general set of cognitive skills, often defined as those requiring a four-year college degree, have been responsible for the vast majority of good-paying new jobs over the past decade. Meanwhile, what we generally think of as trade-specific occupations (mostly in manufacturing and construction) have been in decline.

The research also found that the long-term benefits of more general education were strongest in countries where apprenticeship is the dominant form of training, and required for entry into many professions. In other words, in countries with very prescribed training pathways tied to narrow occupations, the negative long-term impacts of over-specialization are starker.

This is a lesson we should take to heart as politicians talk of replicating the German or Swiss apprenticeship model here in the United States. Instead, as Hanushek notes in the paper, we should be worried about providing all students with a strong general education, equipping them with the cognitive (and we would add non-cognitive) skills that will enable them to adapt to an ever-changing labor market.

This research also feels particularly resonant in our current political climate. Over the past couple decades, a significant segment of the population has seen their jobs either disappear or become less secure, and they’ve been unable to pivot to new occupations or industries. This is a group that was perhaps not equipped with the type of strong general education that would allow them to adjust to a changing world, and they instead voted en masse for a presidential candidate who promised to bring their old jobs back, however impossible that might be.

As Hanushek writes in the paper, “The United States…has largely eliminated vocational education as a separate track in secondary schools on the argument that specific skills become obsolete too quickly and that it is necessary to give people the ability to adapt to new technologies.” His research demonstrates that this is the right approach, and that U.S. schools should focus on fulfilling that promise of giving students an education that will prepare them not for a first job, but for a forty-year career.




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