It’s time to get smarter.

There’s been a lot of discussion about unemployment over the past several years, from Capitol Hill to kitchen tables around the country. High unemployment not only affects the people who experience job loss personally, but it ripples through bottom lines in businesses and governments as they try to slice pieces out of a smaller pie.

But it’s also clear that not everyone is losing in the same proportion in this game of musical chairs. Certain regions and groups of people weather more challenging times with greater resilience than others do. Take a look at the chart above. It shows two things: 

First, people make more money as their level of educational attainment goes up. This is really not so shocking, since we all know that doctors tend to make more than ditch diggers or short order cooks, but also note that to barely reach the median income today, the average person needs at least two years of post-secondary education. In the big picture, there is a very direct relationship between educational attainment and income at each increment.  Between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree, it’s around a $400 a week difference.

Second is that unemployment rates also diminish in nearly perfect proportion as educational attainment increases. While those with only a high school diploma lived in an environment of 9.7 percent unemployment in 2009, those with bachelor’s degrees dealt with a much less severe unemployment rate of 5.2 percent.

In short, people without post-secondary education not only make considerably less money while they’re making it, but they are at far greater risk of losing their smaller incomes, too. It’s a double-whammy.

I’ve done a lot of work and study in the area of economic development and one thing I’ve always noted is that it is a lot more than bricks and mortar projects. To succeed, communities need to develop in ways that provide intangible, but critical support for the progress that they hope to achieve in an economic sense. Simply put, it often doesn’t help to try to attract businesses to places where nobody wants to live. It also doesn’t make sense for a business to locate in an area where they are unlikely to be able to attract and retain the type of employees that they need to succeed and for increasing numbers of them, that often means some post-secondary education.

Using 2000 census figures, Wisconsin was lagging the nation in people 25 years old and older holding bachelor’s degrees — 22.4 percent vs. 24.4 percent. Marathon County trailed even more, with 18.3 percent. Wood County was at 16.9 percent and Lincoln County had a figure of just 13.6 percent.

With these kinds of numbers, we set ourselves up for proportionately greater levels of economic distress, both as communities and as individuals. In the past, our economic environment included a lot of relatively high paying manufacturing jobs. We’ve already seen that changing. A low level of educational attainment that may have worked in the past with a disproportionate share of production line jobs becomes a real anchor to drag in an information-based economy that increasingly depends on professionals and innovation to thrive.

Recently, I’ve embarked on an effort with the University of Wisconsin – Marathon County that will hopefully result in boosting these numbers in aggregate, as well as creating greater individual opportunity for those who participate.

Based on the statistics, we know that there is a great market for higher education in our area. We’re seeing increasing activity on the part of for-profit institutions and others trying to exploit the gap in post-secondary educational attainment that exists here. By using collaborative programs, technology and multiple tracks, the Adult Student Initiative of the UW System presents potential adult students with the opportunity to cost-effectively pursue post-secondary education here, without giving up their current lifestyles. It’s a chance to end up with a degree from one of the most respected institutions of higher learning in the country – and get into a better place on that graph, while avoiding tens of thousands of dollars in crippling student loan debt.


UPDATE:  As luck would have it, the Bureau of Labor Statistics rolled out another chart covering unemployment and educational attainment around the same time I was posting this item:

It reinforces prior numbers concerning education and unemployment.


7 Responses to “It’s time to get smarter.”

  1. I have commented on this quite a bit…

    I will NEVER say that education in and of itself is a bad thing. But all too often I see people who feel that a college degree comes with some type of sense of entitlement.

    In my little world (don’t worry, it’s okay, they know me here), a degree or diploma is no where near as important as a strong work ethic combined with a desire and ability to learn.

    It would be interesting to know how strong work ethic vs bad work ethic and ability to learn vs not would compare on a chart like the one in your blog post… but that is something impossible to quanitify and measure.

    I will admit that there is a direct correlation between work ethic/ability & desire to learn with acedemic achievement. Those with those qualities will often pursue higher education goals.

    All I know, is when I am hiring and you come to me telling me I should hire you because of your degree in whatever.. that won’t go very far. I need someone who has the right attitude about work, who works until the job is done.. NOT when the clock says the day is done. I want someone open to knowledge who can learn my way of doing things.

    None of my current employees have college degrees, one never even went to high school… but they are very good at what they do.

  2. What you say have merit, but I would offer a couple things that need to be considered along with it:

    1. The numbers are clear in terms of the correlation between academic attainment, income and unemployment. There are plenty of people without degrees who succeed and make above average incomes, but it’s sort of like saying that because some people win in a casino, it can be a winning strategy for any individual player. In the big picture, the casino is going to be the winner over time and on average, therefore, most players are going to be losers more of the time. The chart with this entry tells the story: more unemployment and less income is the big picture with educational attainment, on the average.

    2. Using myself as an example, my own career since 1981 would never have been possible without a college degree and it’s not really about what I may have learned in the course of my education. Work ethic or not, I would not have had the opportunity to play without the minimum qualifications to get in the door. That is true for a lot of career paths and it can’t be easily dismissed.

  3. My kingdom for an edit function…

    Make that “What you say HAS merit…” and more unemployment and less income with LESS educational attainment.

  4. I agree it is hard to argue with the numbers..

    I would venture to guess that many of those who do not finish high school or go to college are those with no “drive”. Therefore, level of education is an indicator of the qualities I look for in an employee.

    However… I still say there are many jobs that dont require education past high school… and there are many people who would be happy with those jobs… they may not make the big bucks… but they also don’t have the stress that comes with some of those high dollar carreers and they don’t have the college debt to deal with either.

    I think we can both agree though that the degree alone doesn’t “entitle” you to anything.

  5. like you.. hit send to early…

    true, often you cannot get in the door without the degree as it is a minimum requirement… But all too often, I have seen that degree be a minimum requirement when it doesn’t need to be.

    Here I am working in real estate…. a lot of good my masters degree in german does me… also alot of good my degrees in HR management, international business management, economics and political science do me.

  6. Harvey S. Scholfield Says:

    People who feel they are entitled… because they have a degree… are definitely the people… you don’t want to hire…

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