Boosting Adult Educational Skills Can Grow the Middle Class
An educated workforce is one of the bedrocks of not only the American middle class but also the U.S. economy as a whole. Our economy is the most productive in the world because of the investments workers make in their own skills and civil society makes in education. However, a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, finds that we are failing to ensure that adults keep pace with the increasing need for basic and advanced skills that today’s middle-class jobs demand. The report’s findings suggest that other nations are doing a better job of equipping all citizens with the skills to be productive, while the United States has stagnated. In order to address these challenges, the report provides policy recommendations to improve our nation’s performance, a few of which we highlight here.
The report’s primary recommendations are to improve basic skills, literacy, numeracy, and problem solving, as well as tackle inequalities affecting particular subpopulations in the United States, which have broad implications for American families and the economy. From a competitiveness point of view, the need to invest in our human capital is urgent. While other countries have made gains in education, the United States has stagnated and is therefore falling behind many other OECD countries. Increasingly, younger Americans find themselves at a skills deficit relative to their counterparts in other countries, and U.S. businesses have more difficulty finding the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy. The result is fewer high-quality jobs created in the United States. The OECD report calls on the United States to act boldly and to address these challenges through “concerted action.”
Here at the Center for American Progress, we have made a sustained effort to demonstrate that a strong middle class is a driver of economic growth, and this skills gap demonstrates an even more pressing concern for our proposals to grow the middle class. The basic skills that the OECD report focuses on are associated with a significant wage premium; boosting those skill levels is one of the most important actions we can take to improve the economic situation of families that are struggling to get in and stay in the middle class.
The OECD report points out that it’s not a lack of work that’s keeping these families from reaching the middle class; in fact, 63 percent of low-skilled adults in the United States already have a job. Upgrading the skills of these workers is worthwhile because investments in their education benefit not only individuals and their families but also their employers and society collectively. Better-educated workers are more productive, have more stable families and incomes, and provide their families with greater opportunities to remain in the middle class. These middle-class workers fuel America’s economic growth by supporting their families, communities, and, ultimately, American businesses.
The path to building the broad base of skilled workers will call on all aspects of the U.S. educational system but will be especially demanding of elementary and secondary schools and community colleges and will require four-year higher-educational institutions to better serve a broader population.
One of the greatest opportunities for improvement cited by the report is in the K-12 education system. The OECD found that among people with low skills, the United States had the highest proportion that was young—15.3 percent compared to 12.2 percent on average across all countries examined. The report states that this difference occurs because the “US population is relatively young.” These demographic realities make the reform of K-12 education an especially powerful tool, not only to strengthen our workforce but also to reduce inequality within the K-12 system over time and to make up ground we have lost to other countries in recent years.
With respect to elementary and secondary education, the OECD report calls on policymakers to “strengthen initial schooling for all, ensuring that all children receive an adequate standard of education.” To this aim, the Center for American Progress has worked to promote the Common Core State Standards with rigorous performance measures that ensure students across the country are developing the skills and gaining the knowledge they need for a successful future.
Investing in early childhood, improving K-12 education, and broadening access to quality postsecondary education can play a large role in reducing inequality of opportunity and helping middle-class families thrive and grow the U.S. economy. Community colleges play an especially important role as institutions that prepare students directly for the workplace and help them transition to four-year institutions. In expanding and improving these pathways, it’s important to address a broad swath of students with different needs, motivations, and abilities. The OECD report correctly points out that a one-size-fits-all approach is not likely to change trends.
No matter the skill level, the potential and need for individuals to learn does not stop once they enter the labor force. If low-skill adults use education to boost their skill level, the returns can be realized quickly and for many years to come. Access to quality higher education and lifelong learning is one the most promising onramps to the middle class we can build. Education after high school is an investment with tremendous upside for the economy and society and is a way to create prosperity that can last a lifetime.
In order to improve the status of workers who have not already achieved adequate skill levels, we need high-quality adult-education and training programs, which leverage community colleges and industry partnerships. In that regard, the OECD review highlights the need to reform our postsecondary education system by:
- Substantially strengthening the quality-assurance system in postsecondary education in the United States
- Establishing quality standards linked to industry
- Including workplace training as a key element of postsecondary education programs
- Developing and supporting prior learning assessment
- Improving the information and guidance provided to postsecondary education students
It’s especially important to think about the challenges that go along with further schooling for adults with families. Partnerships between educational institutions and the private sector can be a win-win, matching businesses with appropriately trained workers and providing workers with economic benefits that are more immediate and concrete. These partnerships are especially important in adult and vocational training, where workers must support their families and cannot undergo long periods of training to develop skills that may no longer be in high demand by the time they complete training. Looking at the benefits associated with educational investments through the eyes of a breadwinner, female or male, also requires policymakers to consider the role of wraparound services—such as child care, tuition assistance, and temporary income support—to ensure that workers can find the time to improve their skillsets, better their families’ economic situation, and grow the U.S. economy from the middle out.
The fact that the shortfall in basic skills is not evenly distributed throughout the population drives home the urgency of tackling this issue. If left unaddressed, these differences in basic skill attainment will increase economic inequality across significant portions of the population over time. Demographically, the groups that scored lower on the OECD’s skills measure are from younger and faster-growing portions of the population. The skill level of these workers is extremely important to our future, as they will account for a large, growing share of American families and the U.S. workforce. Investments that serve these populations will pay large dividends down the road, both in broadening the middle class and in raising the level of human capital that drives productivity in our economy.
A retrospective reading of this report is a bleak reminder that we have failed to develop skills that the workplace demands in our most economically vulnerable citizens, increasing inequality, reducing the size of our middle class, and hurting long-run growth in our economy. Yet a forward-looking perspective presents a very promising set of opportunities. America has a large pool of young, motivated, and underskilled workers striving to reach the middle class who are already on the job. Using education as a tool to improve our workforce will grow the middle class, make these families more economically secure, and make our nation more prosperous. The time to make up for lost ground is now.
Michael Madowitz is an Economist at the Center for American Progress. Elizabeth Baylor is the Associate Director of Postsecondary Education Policy at the Center.
 Labor economists estimate that our workplace will encounter a shortage of 5 million “middle-skill” workers by 2018. See David Madland, “Making Our Middle Class Stronger” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2012), available at http://americanprogress.org/issues/2012/08/pdf/middle_class_policies.pdf.
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Director, Postsecondary Education