Creating New Paths to the Middle Class

by Robert Reich
Secretary of Labor


A fault line runs through the American economy today that threatens the stability of our society: the deep divide between college­educated workers and the nearly three­quarters of our workforce whose education ended with "school." Never before in our nation's history have the economic prospects and experience of these groups diverged so dramatically. In the not­too­distant past, both college and non­college educated workers could consider themselves members of the same­middle­class. By 1979, the average male college graduate earned 49 percent more than his counterpart with a high school diploma alone. By 1992, this divergence had widened to 83 percent. Employment benefits such as health insurance and pension coverage have followed the same pattern.

The evidence suggests that the forces contributing to this divergence will intensify as our workforce faces an increasingly competitive, technologically sophisticated global economy. Opportunities for workers with more education and higher skills will continue to grow. Options for workers with less education and lower skill levels will continue to shrink.

Understandably, these Americans are deeply anxious about their prospects and those of their children. The enormous growth in new jobs­over 5 million since January 1993, primarily in the private sector­does not reassure them. What they see most clearly is the loss of once­secure pathways to the middle class, not the gain of new jobs. But nostalgia for the more solid­seeming economy of the past should not lead us to conclude that the mourned lost jobs­in traditional manufacturing, for example­were inherently "middle class." Rather, in an economy in which wages for workers at all levels were rising steadily, even "lousy" jobs could eventually become good ones.

Now what is urgently needed is not the reappearance of the old jobs, but the re­creation of career paths and upward mobility for less­ educated and less­skilled Americans. Manufacturing is still a critical industry in America's economy, but now the greatest value is added, not at the assembly line, but in the steps before and after the product is produced­for instance, through market research, design and engineering; just­in­time delivery, customized installation, maintenance. To add value that commands high wages, a worker must be able to think, solve problems, and learn how to apply skills in new contexts.

Building new paths to the middle class therefore requires that we establish the common ground between secondary and postsecondary education and between "work" and "school." Neither the American economy nor the American workforce can prosper in an environment that treats "schooling," "higher education," and "training" as separate­ even if equal­entities.

The School­to­Work Opportunities Act, signed into law by President Clinton in May 1994, has revolutionary potential to revitalize, restructure, and integrate these components. During the last two years of high school, and for at least one year beyond, young people participating in school­to­work programs receive classroom experience and on­the­job training. They may not know at any one moment whether they are receiving "schooling," "training," or "higher education"­and it doesn't matter. What matters is that they are forging meaningful and durable connections between the world of work and the world of school.

The process of establishing a national School­to­Work system is already underway. In 1994 alone, the Departments of Labor and Education provided $53 million in grants to states and localities to expand promising school­to­work programs into functioning school­ to­work systems. While there are a variety of models for providing successful school­to­work opportunities, they all have in common the integration of secondary schooling, post­secondary education, training and employment. And the implementation of specific school­to­work programs requires that working relationships be formed­and maintained­between and among partners from education, business, and the community.

As "work" and "school" mutually support and infuse each other, the old walls between "academic" and "vocational" education break down. At one school­to­work program I visited, I talked with a young woman who told me frankly that she "used to hate math." But now her perspective had changed. Math class, once a blizzard of abstract equations, had become a concrete way to build skills for a good job. Now, she said, "I love geometry."

The truly innovative nature of the school­to­work movement is obvious from the collaborations that routinely occur between groups that have never worked together and are often mutually suspicious. For example, the partnership launching the New Haven Area Initiative for School­to­Work Opportunities­which focuses on the area's emerging biomedical industry­reaches deep and wide into the greater New Haven community. The partners include, among others, the local Private Industry Council, the New Haven Boards of Education, the Science Park Development Center, the Gateway Community­Technical College, and the area Cooperative Education Service. The initiative has also had strong involvement from labor and individual employers, community­based organizations, Yale University and Yale Medical School.

What is so remarkable is the breadth of partners who perceive themselves as stakeholders in forming school­to­work arrangements. In a specific program, the entity responsible for initiating and coordinating a school­to­work project can range from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Boston Private Industry Council to the School Board of Dade County, Florida, the Fond du Lac Community College in Minnesota, and Cornell University. An individual locality can choose the specific configuration that best fits its specific needs.

Some linkages are forged out of the structure of the specific school­ to­work model. For example, "tech prep" programs­sometimes called two­plus­two, because they combine two years of high school with two years of college­by their nature require secondary and post­ secondary schools to create a cohesive curriculum. The process of building such a school­to­work program forces schools and colleges to articulate both their common interests and their unique roles.

Community colleges are proving especially adept at providing the education and skills training that will sustain the core of the new middle class jobs. A survey the Department of Labor conducted with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), incorporating responses from 460 community colleges nationwide and representing over 115,300 students, revealed that the community college degrees and certificates most in demand by employers correlate extremely well with fields that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has identified as most likely to grow between now and 2005. These include nursing (associate degree and registered nurse); computer information systems; medical technician and allied health jobs, such as physical therapy assistant; emergency medical technician; radiology technician; occupational therapy assistant; respiratory therapy; dental hygiene; biomedical technician; and nuclear medicine technician. Most of these jobs­all of which currently pay minimum average entry­level salaries of $20,000­require some post­secondary education but generally do not demand four­year degrees.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with community college students from across the country. These students were a varied and determined bunch. There were single parents pulling off the near­ impossible­working full­time, raising children and getting an education. Their colleges were helping them with creative adaptations such as "tele­classes" that parents can watch on television in their own living rooms and discuss afterwards by telephone with their professors. The students included dislocated workers aiming for a second career, convinced the only way to become immune from obsolescence was not to aim for job security, but to build employment security with a solid educational base. There were some traditional­age students, too, for whom community college had been the only feasible gateway to higher education­and who were now thinking about going on to four­year schools and bachelor's degrees. Some students were returning to school having already concluded a career. One retiree's entrepreneurial spirit and interest in education had led him to earn first a certificate and now a degree in travel and tourism­which he was parlaying into a business providing tours for older and disabled travellers.

What struck me most forcibly about these students was not just the pride they took in their colleges, but also their utter conviction that education was their ticket up and out, the place where excuses stopped and opportunities began.

The data show that they are right. Research indicates that annual earnings grow at least 5­10 percent for each additional year of training or education a worker receives beyond high school. Interestingly, the positive earnings effects of post­secondary education do not appear to depend on whether or not the student receives a degree or on the type of education­e.g., vocational training, community college, or four­year college.

The bottom line is that skills and education are critical to developing new paths into the middle class­for experienced workers as well as those just starting out. Workers now have to be prepared to learn new skills throughout their careers, to be ready to apply them in new ways and in new settings. And this means that everyone who has a stake in this nation's future must help create and sustain a system of lifelong learning that gives all Americans continuous opportunities to learn.

The only way to establish common ground for all Americans is to restore paths to the middle class for those who have been left behind. "Average" Americans will feel­and be­secure only if the education and skills that the new jobs require come into their reach. It has never been more critical that we stake out and cultivate the common ground between school and college, education and work, the college­bound and those for whom "higher" education has up until now loomed far out of reach.


Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1994 Issue of On Common Ground

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