• WisBusiness

Monday, April 27, 2009

Producing better-educated workers can help ease recessionary sting


By Tom Still
This recession has spared no group of workers when it comes to losing jobs, with white-collar workers who seemed nearly immune to past economic downturns standing in unemployment lines with their blue-collar counterparts.

Still, there's a clear "education gap" in the national jobless statistics -- and it's wide enough to buttress the commonly held belief that better educated workers are more likely to find work, earn a good wage and keep working when times get tough.

The gap should also reinforce efforts by Wisconsin policymakers and business leaders to support strategic ideas for building a better educated workforce, from K-12 programs that emphasize science, technology, engineering and math to targeted tax credits that can help older workers earn a college degree.

In February 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that unemployment rates for people without high-school degrees was 12.6 percent, compared to 8.3 percent for those with a high-school degree only, 7 percent for those with some education after high school and 4.1 percent for those with a college degree.

Wisconsin ranks about 33rd among the 50 states in the percentage of adults with college degrees, well behind Minnesota (11th) and Illinois (15th). So perhaps it's no coincidence that Wisconsin's 9.4 percent jobless rate for March 2009 was higher than unemployment nationwide (9.0 percent), in Minnesota (8.2 percent) and in Illinois (7.3 percent).

Skeptics can make chicken-or-egg arguments all they want, but the fact is that "knowledge economy" businesses tend to cluster in cities and states where they can find workers who hold post-high school degrees. If you build the workforce, those businesses will come. Plus, knowledge-based businesses weather recessions better than most -- which means workers at those companies tend to keep their jobs.

What can Wisconsin do to build a better-educated workforce?

Click here to read Still's answers.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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