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The Cure for Low-Wage Jobs

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By Jennifer Wheary

When it comes to the impact of low-wage work on children and families, are today's young people just lazy? Do low-wage workers start families they cannot hope to support? Is it possible for young people to avoid becoming stuck in low-wage jobs in the first place?

There are multiple reasons why millions of Americans are struggling to support themselves while earning poverty or near poverty wages. Among these reasons is the disproportionate number of low-wage jobs already in existence, and the fact that most of the new jobs being created (and projected to be created in the near future) are low wage.

But in this environment the question of personal responsibility, particularly when it comes to job training and career planning, also figures in. Except for those born into true privilege, pursuing some type of education or specialized occupational training is the only defense against economic instability.

Education Is the Answer

Educational attainment influences job opportunities and salary level. It also influences likelihood of employment. According to numbers released last week, the overall seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in November was 7.7 percent. Among adults 25 and over without a high school diploma, unemployment was 12.2 percent. For high school graduates in the same age group it was 8.1 percent. For those with some college or an associates degree it was 6.5 percent, and for those with a bachelors degree or higher it was 3.8 percent.

Looking at these numbers, the importance of pursuing some type of education is obvious. The question is not whether to get advanced training. It is what to learn. At first glance, having a bachelors degree seems the safest bet to solid employment. But not everyone wants and is able to pursue a traditional four-year degree. Factors such as academic ability, interest, college preparedness, and the affordability of school all contribute to this.

Alternative Training Helps Too

Fortunately there are options for those for whom, for whatever reason, a bachelors degree is not a good fit. Researchers at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University have analyzed national census data and identified fields where the earnings of those holding community college credentials, including short-term occupational certificates, are higher than the earnings of those holding bachelor degrees in the fields of humanities, social sciences and liberal arts. The difference is felt most when individuals train for specific occupations. Those in technical and medical fields, such as heating and air-conditioning, energy, utilities, or nursing fare far better than bachelors degree holders in generic areas. In fact, when Georgetown analyzed unemployment by major, they also found that those holding job-specific credentials had lower levels of unemployment than generalists.

Trouble for Young Adults

Especially given the increased importance of pursuing training, a report released last week by the Anne E. Casey Foundation talks about a real crisis among young adults age 18-24. According to the report, nearly 6.5 million young adults in this age group are "disconnected," that is, they are not in school and not working. America's Promise, another organization, estimates that 1 in 6 young adults are not connected to school, training or the workforce.

If they are to avoid a low-wage future, young Americans, particularly those who are currently disconnected from work and school, need our support in starting down a more productive path. A large measure of creativity, open-mindedness, and public and private effort is needed. Georgetown's work shows that the goal does not need to be a four-year college degree for everyone.

The Casey report calls for a renewed public and private commitment to helping young people pursue "multiple and flexible pathways to achieve credentials, employment and economic success." That is, we can cast the net widely and make much progress by helping youth find apprenticeships, on the job training, and even shorter-term community college credentials that lead somewhere.

In an increasingly low-wage economy, 1 in 6 youth not gaining work experience or bettering themselves through ongoing education or training is absolutely scary. The longer these youth stay out of the workforce or stay away from training, the greater their chances of never moving beyond low-wage work.

Solutions Are Already Available

Even those of us who came from humble means and worked our way to a better station than our parents must acknowledge we had some help along the way. Maybe we had a mentor showing us the ropes. Maybe we received federal financial aid, loans, or scholarships to support our education. Maybe someone gave us a break and hired us untested for our first job.

It is easy to blame youth for being lazy or lacking initiative, but if we stop the discussion there we miss an important and much needed chance to help.

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos where she writes about current trends in education, economic opportunity and positive public policy.  She holds an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a PhD from the University of Illinois. Her writing appears online and in newspapers around the country. You can follow her on Twitter @edteachpolicy.