Skills, Education and Employment

May 14th, 2013
in Op Ed

by John Mauldin, Thoughts from the Frontline

I am writing part of this week's letter in the rafters of a huge auditorium as I watch 1100 liberal art graduates at a major university receive their degrees. (I long ago made a promise to be here.) This was an expensive education, and the graduates are smart; yet when you ask them what their plans are, all too often you hear that they have not been able to find jobs or are opting to continue with school, often borrowing yet more money to do so, as they see no other viable options.

Follow up:

Recent research suggests that the cost/benefit ratio for education is not as good as it once was. See, for example, this article by Jeff Selingo.

Education – at least in the conventional sense – is not always necessary for job success. All too often it is the enemy of success. Yet the fallacy persists among the unemployed that "going back to school" will somehow solve their problems.

In most cases, it will not. The unemployed do not need more school; what they need are more skills. Why? Because what employers need are abilities. Workers are essentially a delivery mechanism for the ability to do whatever the employer happens to need done. This is not to say that formal education is unimportant; it is critically important – but not for the reason most people expect.

Degrees and diplomas are credentials. They do not, in and of themselves, guarantee that the holder possesses the skill an employer wants. They serve as screening tools, used to reduce a long list of applicants to a smaller number for closer review.

Employers want workers with the necessary skills. Workers want an employer who values their particular skills. When a match is made, everyone wins. Skills are the key to every match.

Skills can be acquired in school, of course. Indeed, it is impossible to spend thousands of hours in classrooms during one's formative years, while the brain is in peak learning mode, without acquiring at least some kind of skill. Children and adolescents are highly tuned skill-acquisition machines.

If schools produced the right number of students with the right sets of skills, the economy would be much closer to full employment. Something is wrong somewhere.

Yet those with college degrees are clearly able to find jobs of some kind. The unemployment level for college graduates is about half that of high school grads and almost three times better than for those with no high school degree. Education does matter.

Michael Ellsberg gives us one reason for that seeming advantage a degree delivers:

True, people with college degrees tend to earn more. But that could be because most ambitious people tend to go to college; there is little evidence to suggest that the same ambitious people would earn less without college degrees (particularly if they mastered true business and networking grit).

And while most people who end up starting businesses likely have college degrees, those degree-bearers should be well aware (as they learned in their freshman statistics classes) that correlation does not equal causation. Assuming that college was responsible for their success gives higher education more credit than it deserves. (New York Times: Will Dropouts Save America?)

America, as Ellsberg describes it, has yet another way to divide today's job market into two pieces: formal and informal. The "formal" job market is the old-fashioned one in which employers advertise and workers send resumes. It was never as effective as people thought. Successful professionals and business owners have long preferred the second, informal market.

When you need someone who can do X, you ask trusted friends and colleagues who they know. You will usually find a well-qualified candidate in short order. (And now you use LinkedIn and other social media.)

What role does your wall-decorating degree play in this process? A little – and a lot. If you can do what needs to be done, employers usually won't care where (or if) you went to college. But, since they turn to people they know when they search for candidates, and since our lifelong friendships are so often formed in college, being "in the circle" increases your odds of being known to the right people at the right time.

The old saying is then somewhat true: it isn't just what you know; it's who you know.

Further, if you advertise for a new employee today on one of the online job boards, you can get hundreds of resumes. Most are just people sending you a resume in hopes of attracting attention, but you can still get an overwhelming number of potential employees. How do you sort? One way is by education. That degree helps you sort, even when the job really does not require a degree.

But the skills advantage shows up in the next graph. Notice that the older you get, the lower your likelihood of being unemployed. As I have shown in previous letters, Boomers are not only working more than any other age cohort, they are taking market share from the 20-somethings. In fact, as of less than a year ago, 100% of the overall increase in jobs was going to those age 55 and up. Young people were actually losing ground in what was already a slow jobs recovery.

The reasons are trite but obvious. We Boomers have not saved enough to retire and must keep working. Given our fewer remaining work years, we'll work where we can and for what we can get. And then there are those of us who simply have no interest in anything that looks like traditional retirement. We are living longer and healthier lives than previous generations enjoyed, and there are simply more of us.

Even the youngest Boomer probably has 35-40 years of work experience and a lot of acquired skills. Young people may have more energy, but many jobs are not a function of simple energy and enthusiasm. Go into a Barnes and Noble or any number of other stores and notice the ages of those working. There are young people, sure, but I see my age peers as well. I didn't see that 20 years ago. And those "starter" jobs are where workers gain experience.

We have policies in place that encourage young people to load up on debt to get that degree. We need to create programs that match skills and jobs and that give employers incentives to hire and train those younger workers.

As Paul McCulley said at the conference last week,

Ages 22-27 are the years that really matter for your lifetime of financial security. We now have a job market that is the antithesis of what you and I graduated into.

That is a structural phenomenon, not cyclical. It will not heal itself with platitudes about more and better education. New businesses are being formed at the lowest rate in generations. Over the long term, the growth in the job market comes from new businesses. Want to create jobs? Stop increasing costs and regulations and making it harder for entrepreneurs to get started.

And get the SEC to issue the rules that Congress mandated they write over a year ago (the much-ballyhooed JOBS Act), which will make it possible for new ventures to publicly announce their need for capital on the internet without running afoul of the current regulations. The SEC is way behind the 90-day deadline specified in the act. The law as written by Congress is clear. Those groups lobbying for the status quo and standing in the way need to step aside. You are costing young people future jobs. Those are MY kids. And everyone else's.

(A Note from the Author: Just for the record, I am an equal opportunity employer. I have younger and older employees, all genders and races. Talent and a solid work ethic are the currency I look for.)

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