The Lens: The future belongs to workers with specialized, advanced skills; surviving the economic transformation

In The Lens, Matt Rosenberg poses a challenging question: worker justice or workforce development? We’ll concede that’s not necessarily an either/or proposition or a false dichotomy. But we think his article raises an issue of critical importance to how we prepare students and young workers for an economy that relies less and less on unskilled or low-skilled employees. 

He identifies several initiatives in metro Seattle that have attempted to improve conditions for low-wage workers: increased minimum wage, paid leave, and scheduling regulation. Then he writes,

However, as campaigns ratchet up for a growing number of employer mandates in Washington state and across the U.S., trends in workforce development and workplace technology are tilting the playing field even further away from unskilled hourly workers who would benefit. They wait on tables, draw lattes, or flip burgers.

Growing indications are that the future belongs to workers with more specialized or advanced skills. They are less dependent on interventionist policy because they do things machines cannot.

As we have written,

Education expands opportunity. By 2020, 70 percent of Washington jobs will require postsecondary education or training. Preparing our students for these opportunities requires high-quality education at every level.

Rosenberg cites the skills gap reported in our foundation report,

The Roundtable report, cited by its Opportunity Washington initiative, notes the job skills gap in the state will reach 50,000 persistently unfilled jobs by next year. Being able to fill the positions means the state would gain an additional 160,000 spin-off jobs, plus $720 million more in state taxes and $80 million more in local taxes each year.

The important takeaway is that improving education is the key to filling the gap and improving opportunity for low-wage workers. Rosenberg examines recommendations, including more equitable and stable state education funding, better understanding of what expenditures produce the best learning outcomes, stronger teacher training standards, and expanding choice and competition with charter schools. 

There’s more and we recommend you read the article. With the state Supreme Court about to review legislative performance toward meeting the McCleary mandate, it’s important to remember what’s really at stake in the education debate: expanding opportunity for all Washingtonians by ensuring giving every student the best chance to gain a meaningful education.

For a national perspective, consider this New York Times story published in the Seattle Times: It’s a tough job market for the young without college degrees.

And for a perspective on the coming legislative education funding discussions, this op-ed in the Tri-Cities Herald is worth attention: Capital gains taxes are too unreliable to fund education.