Josef Joffe’s review of Thomas Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum’s new book, That Used to Be Us, contains the following bizarre but common claim about how America’s current economic difficulties differ from those of the past: “Back in the Eisenhower days, Little Johnny couldn’t read so well, but so what? He could still take his place in the country’s humming industrial machine. Today, he can’t get a job because (a) net job-growth has been zero for the past decade and (b) low-skill, high-wage jobs are disappearing forever. Nor is this just Johnny’s problem. Behind him lurks an education system that isn’t equipping children with the intellectual capital in demand in the new knowledge economy.” Yes, we’ve heard that over and over. Today’s America needs only high-skilled, knowledge intensive workers and we aren’t producing enough of them. That claim, however, is patently false.
Back in 2006, Forbes published an article on-line entitled “The 10 Hardest Jobs to Fill in America.” “Engineer was indeed number 1. However, the list also included truck drivers, explaining “They are hard to recruit because they have to be away from home for long periods, receive low wages, work very long hours and put up with a fluctuating workload.” Another hard-to-fill job was laborer. Forbes explained the shortage by the fact that This is very physical, unskilled and often repetitive work at low pay.”
How have things changed since the Forbes’ article? A recent MSNBC article by Eve Tahmincioglu quotes Peter Creticos, president and executive director for the Institute for Work and the Economy. “If you look at the job growth distribution of the last two recoveries, it suggests we’re going to see growth of a lot more lower-income jobs.” The jobs the article lists as the 8 lowest paying jobs in the country, including food preparation workers, cashiers, and home care aides, are those you can see in the help-wanted pages every day. So, maybe the problem is not that our schools aren’t successfully turning everyone into highly skilled information workers. Maybe the problem is that we expect everyone to be a highly skilled information worker in an economy that really needs laborers, truck drivers, cashiers, restaurant workers and home health care aides.