I once had a summer job renovating apartments in New York city. Not having much experience at this kind of thing, my Jamaican co-workers always assigned me those tasks they thought I could manage. Once, when I clearly was in over my head, doing something “easy” like mixing cement, one of them commented:
Back in Jamaica, this here is what they called “low skilled” labor.
As American’s begin to worry about the outsourcing of high-skilled labor, it is a conversation that has been much on my mind. In a recent op-ed on outsourcing, Robert Kuttner writes,
And don’t blame the trade problem on America’s schools. … For there are already millions of well educated Americans — including skilled programmers and technicians — losing jobs to overseas competition.
But what I wonder, and I haven’t seen anything written about this, is how many American’s were doing these highly skilled jobs as computer programmers and technicians to begin with? I don’t know the statistics, but weren’t a lot of these jobs going to people who were immigrating to this country specifically to grab these lucrative jobs for which there weren’t enough American’s to fill the demand? American science and industry has long been profiting from the excellent state-run education systems in Europe and Asia, without having to pay taxes to support such a system at home. I know for a fact that Bill Gates personally testified before Congress when they were thinking of eliminating the provision which allowed people here on student visas to work for a year after graduating before having to apply for a work visa. Now they are saving even more money by not having to pay these workers American salaries, and they are also saving money on health care coverage by relying on socialized medicine in those same countries. (Although Bill Gates deserves credit for investing his personal money into AIDS prevention in India.)
But whether or not it is an exaggeration to claim that most of these jobs were being done by Russian, Indian, and Chinese graduate students, the fact is that America has been creating very few high-skill jobs for some time. Most new jobs require little more than a high school diploma:
Of the top 30 occupations, about 40% of the job growth will be among those in the lowest quarter of the earnings distribution. Another 28% will be in the top-paying quartile, with only 31% in the middle two. Less than a quarter of the top 30 jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or higher; 54% will require short on-the-job training. Outside the top thirty, a quarter of new jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or more — but almost twice as many will require no more than short- to medium-term on-the-job training. Three quarters will require less than an associate’s degree. [Doug Henwood, After the New Economy (p. 73).]
And even when we look at college graduates, “skills” seem to do very little in explaining why college graduates earn more than those without a bachelors degree:
Studies of the relations among wages, schooling, and scores on standardized tests — admittedly imperfect measures of skills — show that while people with more education make higher scores on the tests, this advantage pales next to the higher wages earned by the credentialed; nothing in the scores can explain why college grads earn 60% more than those with only a high school diploma. [Doug Henwood, After the New Economy (p. 75).]
So why all the grumbling about American workers not having skills? Henwood’s explanation is rather depressing (emphasis added):
An elite spin on the Bowles/Gintis thesis was provided by Susan Mayer and Christopher Jencks (2000). Dissenting from the push for higher school “standards” measured by standardized tests, Mayer and Jencks point out that test scores explain less than one-third of the earnings difference between high school grads and dropouts. Employers must want something more than the kinds of skills measured by tests; they provide a helpful list: “Graduates have a better attitude; they are more responsible; they have better people skills.” concluding, they quote Woody Allen’s famous observation that “90 percent of life is showing up. Students who finish high school do better than dropouts partly because they have learned this lesson.” This is a much less inspiring view if the value of education than the more common excuses, like preparing for self-governance in a democracy or developing a critical intelligence. The real economic value of a diploma is that it proves that you’ve learned how to report cheerfully for duty. [Doug Henwood, After the New Economy (p. 75).]