My father came to the United States shortly after the end of World War I. He barely had a high school education. My mother, who grew up in Chicago, attended a commercial high school. She graduated at 16 and entered the workforce with terrific secretarial skills that served her well throughout her life. My mom used to joke that the Great Depression never affected her family because they were already poor. When I was born, my parents made it their goal that I obtain a college education.
Like so many other parents who provided their children with a solid, middle-class upbringing in our blue-collar neighborhood, they worked long and hard to make that dream a reality. After high school, I enrolled at the University of Iowa, eventually transferred to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and made my parents proud when I received my bachelor of arts in journalism. A now-faded photograph of me clutching my diploma in cap and gown captured the occasion.
Similar snapshots of the American dream have been displayed on mantels across the nation for decades, with each generation achieving substantially higher levels of education than its parents.
But that picture is changing.
Recently, I read a startling article in the Wall Street Journal by David Wessel and Stephanie Banchero. Citing Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, they calculated the average years of schooling for native-born Americans back to 1876 and report, “When baby boomers born in 1955 reached age 30, they had about two years more schooling than their parents.” In contrast, “when Americans born in 1980 turned 30 in 2010, they averaged only about eight months more schooling than their parents.”
Wessel and Banchero state several reasons why American education levels are no longer increasing. Despite concerted efforts, high school dropout rates remain “stubbornly high.” In the U.S., about one in five ninth-graders drop out. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 20 countries now have higher high school graduation rates than the U.S., including Slovenia, Finland, Japan, the U.K. and South Korea.
In addition, while college enrollment is rising — a not unexpected result of high unemployment and limited job prospects — completion rates are dismal. According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in a two- or four-year college soon after finishing high school, but many never get a degree or other credential. At four-year colleges, 43 percent of those who enrolled as freshmen in 2002 hadn’t received a degree six years later. A 2010 report on the millennials issued by Pew Research Center indicates that about 48 percent of those born between 1980 and 1999 are not college graduates and are not currently in school. As of 2009, the U.S. lagged behind 14 other developed countries in issuing college degrees.
Consider the net result: The supply of educated workers is rising much more slowly than the demand generated by a knowledge-based economy in which minds matter more than muscles. As Goldin put it, “The wealth of nations is no longer in resources. It’s no longer in physical capital. It’s in human capital.” Without well-educated employees, economists say organizations won’t be able to maintain high-wage jobs and rising living standards in a competitive global economy.
As chief learning officers, this trend has broad and deep ramifications for you and your enterprise. If the future workforce is not prepared, it falls to the learning organization to make up for the deficits and develop the skills, capabilities and even the work ethic needed to lead a company forward. This requires unprecedented flexibility, innovation, vision and strategy.
Forging productive and proactive partnerships with academic institutions, creating and supporting dynamic internal mentoring programs that ensure successful knowledge transfer and using the diverse technologies so familiar to millennials to communicate and deliver development experiences are all ways your organization can overcome and overturn the education gap. The payoffs are many, from lower recruitment costs and reduced employee turnover to improved outcomes and business success.
You get the picture. Employee education has become an even more vital contribution that each enterprise should — and must — make to compete in the global knowledge economy and lead through future generations.