Like the song “The Thrill Is Gone,” popularized by B.B. King in the month and year that I was born, the jobs that so many of our leaders alleged that they are holding onto for Americans are gone. Going, going, gone! Like a steroids-driven Barry Bonds home run into San Francisco Bay, the jobs that Americans have expected to be their birthright for the past six or seven decades no longer exist. For any American with less than a bachelor’s degree to expect to get a job paying more than $30,000 a year with limited job experience is foolhardy. For any undereducated American to expect a manufacturing job that pays enough to support a family of four (about $50,000) with a full slate of benefits needs to be committed!
About two weeks ago, I attended a studio taping of the AlJazeera program Faultlines with the topic of “The Color of Recession.” The premise — that the Obama Administration wasn’t doing enough to help Americans of color recover from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. While that could be true, the panelists, especially talking heads like the Rev. Jesse “Keep-Hope-Alive” Jackson and Linda Chavez argued about the failures of the Bush 43 Administration to avert the crisis. It was a zoo, and the host of the show might as well been a tamer whose head was already in the lion’s mouth.
Besides ridiculous arguments about the overthrowing of capitalism by folks like ’08 Green Party Vice-Presidential candidate Rosa Clemente and counterarguments by Chavez about socialists not being patriotic, one thing clearly stood out. Jackson, Chavez, and even Clemente agreed on one thing. That jobs in the industrial sector ought to be saved for Americans, and that the Obama Administration could somehow play a role in saving them. That simple fact proved the one thing I’ve known about American politics since high school. That the distance between most Americans on the ideological scale is about the same as the distance from my right thumb to my right index finger.
But it also shows how significant the leadership deficit is in our great nation when folks who should know better spout rhetoric that hasn’t been true in places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Indianapolis since ’84, and in places like Buffalo, Rochester, Camden, and Newark since the mid-60s. This is a post-industrial economy, one that is dependent on the Information Age. While there will always be some manufacturing jobs in the US — we still have a military-industrial complex, after all, not to mention Southern right-to-work states — the days of factories with a workforce of 50,000 and 100,000 people has long passed. Unless we can turn the clock back to about 1890, we will never again see the days of steel mills and auto plants that single-handedly provided work for an entire city or region.
With more than eighty percent of all new living-wage jobs produced in this country requiring the equivalent of an associate’s degree or some postsecondary credential, it’s time we stop lying to the public about how any government can protect certain kinds of jobs for their citizens. We need more nurses, teachers, radiologists, engineers and chemists, not more young folk who can’t even find their home state on a map. And that’s with the name of the state on the map! Bill Gates may well be right in saying that high schools as we know them today are obsolete. But that’s only true because our mentality about the kinds of jobs we can get after high school hasn’t changed with our ever-changing economy.
It’s a shame that our leadership can’t be more honest about where we are these days on the job front. Our official unemployment rate is 10.2 percent, meaning that in reality, it’s closer to 20 percent. Meaning that times are hard even for folks with at least a bachelor’s degree as an educational credential. But the vast majority of our educational haves will recover from this downturn, find work — mostly good paying work — and put their lives back together. Those whose lives were once or ever dependent on the manufacturing world are already a part of the have-nots.
I don’t care how many articles discuss the fact that there are people in this country who are making good money — and are even rich — and don’t possess a postsecondary degree or certificate of any sort. That group is a small and shrinking one. These days, your odds are better with Powerball or Mega Millions than they are venturing into the job market for a non-service industry (read “Rite-Aid,” “CVS” or “Walmart” here) job without a degree.
Bottom line: the sooner we as a people accept that the jobs of the past are gone, never to return, the sooner that we can get on to another central issues to jobs in education. We need to put pressure on our federal and state officials, nonprofit entities, and religious organizations to stop acting as if a high school education is the limit for most of America. We need to assume that most of us have the ability — if not the training — necessary to obtain some sort of postsecondary credential. We need to make our 15,000 school districts into ones that prepare our children for a twenty-first century, post-industrial economy. Without this pressure, we will expand our permanent underclass by the tens of millions in the next decade or two, weighing down our economy in the process. That America isn’t the one I want to get older in, nor is it one I want my son growing up in.