MacDowell: Rebuilding the Middle Class Starts with Education

by Michael A. MacDowell

The race up to the presidential election in November clearly was dominated by important debates over taxes, job creation, and the vanishing middle class. The middle class may be an endangered species, but it’s not for the reasons many politicians would have you believe.

Michael A. MacDowell, President, Misericordia University

Rapidly-advancing technology is the chief culprit, as innovative software and computers are making thousands of jobs per week obsolete and, in effect, “hallowing out’’ the middle class workforce, according to a recent New York Times article. Five years after the Great Recession started, millions of middle-class jobs have been lost in developed countries, such as the United States, Europe and Canada. And most of them are not coming back.

The advent of smartphones and tablet computers are allowing people to work almost anywhere. They’re slicing into production line jobs and middle class office jobs – like those held by travel agents, secretaries, paralegals, and others. These losses are affecting all major job categories in large corporations and small businesses as well as in established companies. Technological advances are also replacing people in start-ups, and in schools, universities, hospitals, the military, and nonprofit organizations.

Not all the news is bad, however. The middle class may be able to recoup some jobs in the housing market, which seems to be picking up steam. The additional constructions jobs are a silver lining for the recovering economy, but not all of the secondary jobs associated with this industry will return, as computerization has reduced or eliminated the need for many positions, such as in inventory maintenance and in architecture.

Almost all post-recession eras since World War II have been marked by substantial job growth. But the Great Recession has not experienced this trend. In the almost 4½ years since it officially ended, the U.S. has regained only 3.5 million or 47 percent of the 7.5 million jobs that were lost, and only 2 percent of the 3.5 million jobs regained have been in the middle class category, according to Moody’s Analytics. In the four previous recessions, at least 30 percent of the jobs created were in mid-pay industries.

An interesting and positive spin-off of the recession is the increased high school graduation rate. Throughout the U.S., high school graduation rates are at their highest level in nearly four decades. Pennsylvania has an overall high school graduate rate of 84.1 percent. This promising trend is a key reason why college enrollment across various sectors of higher education has not deteriorated as it was forecasted to do several years ago. The anticipated lack of college students due to  lower birth rates 16 to 20 years ago has been more than compensated for by the larger percentage of students graduating high school and going on to college.

Clearly, the movement to stay in high school and, more importantly, to graduate from college can be the most significant factor in rebuilding the middle class. Sophisticated technology will continue to eliminate jobs for people from all walks of life, but students can help to rebuild this important sector of American society by choosing a career path carefully and wisely. During the Great Recession and our rather anemic recovery, the number of jobs open to people with a bachelor’s degree or better actually increased. However, during the same period – December 2007 through February 2012 – more than 5.8 million people without a college degree lost their jobs. Today, the unemployment rate for college graduates is 3.7 percent, less than half the rate for people with a high school diploma.

Additionally, college graduates that pursue careers in science, math and technology, as well as in the health and medical science fields, have the best potential for becoming part of the middle class and remaining there. Misericordia University has seen firsthand the demand for graduates of its six health and medical science programs increase throughout the recession and the recovery.

For centuries, humankind has been replaced by machines. The advent of computers and sophisticated software has only hastened this process. Our ingenuity, coupled with hard work and the growth of a more educated populace, are the best ways to ensure that young people today will be part of tomorrow’s middle class.

Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., where he occasionally teaches economics.

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