Jeannette Wicks-Lim: The possibility of educating one’s way out of poverty is getting dim as most new jobs only require a high school education
Jeannette Wicks-Lim completed her Ph.D. in economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2005. Wicks-Lim specializes in labor economics with an emphasis on the low-wage labor market and has an overlapping interest in the political economy of race. Her dissertation, Mandated wage floors and the wage structure: Analyzing the ripple effects of minimum and prevailing wage laws, is a study of the overall impact of mandated wage floors on wages. Specifically, she provides empirical estimates of the extent to which mandated wage floors cause wage changes beyond those required by law, either through wage effects that ripple across the wage distribution or spillover to workers that are not covered by mandated wage floors.
Paul Jay, Senior Editor, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
A new study has found that two-thirds of American jobs being created and that are likely to be created only require a high school education or less. So the idea that people are going to educate themselves out of unemployment and poverty doesn’t seem to have a heck of a perspective.
Now joining us to talk about this research is Jeannette Wicks-Lim. She’s an assistant research professor at PERI institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also writes for the New Labor Forum, where she has a new piece called “The Working Poor: A Booming Demographic.” Thanks for joining us again, Jeannette.
Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Assistant Research Professor, PERI: Thanks for having me.
Jay: So talk about what you found, first of all in terms of the nature of jobs that are available, and then what significance that has.
Wicks-Lim: Right. Well, and just to repeat what you said and just to underscore this point, because it seems like a lot of the news stories these days—well, this has been an old news story—is that low-wage workers, what they really need is a college education, and that’s what they will—you know, that will be the key to getting them into a better-paying job and get them out of a status of working poverty.
And when you look at what’s actually out there in the U.S. economy and the types of jobs that are offered, what you find is, by the Department of Labor’s own reports, about 70 percent of the jobs that are currently available, and also the jobs that can be expected to be created between now and 2020, about 70 percent of them only require a high school degree or less to have entry-level positions. So a lot of these jobs do not require this college education that seems to be pushed over and over again in order to increase the welfare of low-wage workers.
And what you also find, what I also found when I was looking at these figures, is that you do see that the workforce has become more and more educated over the last three decades. I mean, if you look at figures from 1979 to 2011, you see that in the workforce, about—we started at about 40 percent of the workforce having some level of college experience, and that’s now risen to over 60 percent. At the same time, over the same number of years, you’ve seen that workers earning a very low wage rate of $10 an hour or less, 25 percent of the workforce earn that low wage level. So, you know, we have the same constant share of very lowly paid jobs, about a quarter of the workforce.
Now, what does that mean? So you have more and more workers being educated, but you still have a very significant share of workers earning very low wages. What it means is that you have better and better educated low-wage workers. So if you look at these $10 an hour or less workers, you see that between—you know, over the last three decades, there was 25 percent of these workers who had some college experience, and now you’ve got 40 percent of these workers with some college experience. So they are indeed better-educated. So maybe, you know, they’re following this idea that getting more education will improve their economic status. But in fact what we find is that the economic status does not improve.
Jay: So why this change? We’re supposedly going into the technology economy and the information technology and so on and so on, which all supposedly implies better-educated people will do better.
Wicks-Lim: Well, I think [incompr.] just a misrepresentation of what’s happening in the U.S. workforce. And what you often will hear, if you listen carefully, in news reports about what’s happening with the workforce, what you often will hear people say is the fastest-growing jobs are in these high-tech fields that require a high level of educational credentials and that, you know, pay good wages. Well, these jobs take up a very small share of the workforce, so they may indeed be growing very fast. They represent a very small number of workers in the overall economy.
Instead what’s the sort of mainstay in terms of work in the U.S. economy are these jobs that only require a high school degree or less. They’re usually tied to the service economy. So if you look—again, this is something that’s reported by the Department of Labor—one of the things that they report, they report amongst the top 30 occupations with the largest job growth between—what they are projecting between 2010 and 2020, that amongst those top 30 jobs, many of them are very low wage jobs, very low wage occupations.
And what I did, actually, in this recent piece that I did is I compared the occupations in this list of the top 30 occupations with the largest job growth over the next ten years to the most common jobs held by the working poor. And, in fact, the majority of the occupations in both these lists are the same. In other words, the jobs that are adding the most number of jobs, the ones that are expected to add the most number of jobs over the next ten years, are the same kinds of jobs that the working poor hold. So that’s really a more accurate description of what are the most common, most prevalent—the jobs that are going to be adding the most new positions over the next ten years are these kinds of jobs. And you can imagine what these jobs are—you know, consist of. They are jobs like janitors, security guards, childcare workers, home health care aides, those types of positions. And those are positions that people, you know, are pretty well aware are pretty common in the U.S. economy, and they just, in fact, make up a large proportion of the workforce.
Jay: And, of course, the other thing that’s happening is that even jobs that traditionally paid significantly more, like in the auto industry, where it used to be a starting worker would make $24 to $26 an hour to begin, the new contracts now have starting workers at $14, or even less in some—in auto parts manufacturing, and these kind of two-tier contracts are happening all over the country. So even those working class jobs that in theory did pay more are disappearing.
Wicks-Lim: Yeah, that’s true. I think what we’ve been seeing in the recent decades is a large growth in jobs that pay very low wages, and then some growth in jobs that pay very high wages, and those sort of middle-income jobs that pay decent wages, the ones that you were just talking about, the, you know, auto manufacturing jobs, their pay is either decreasing, or their jobs are going overseas.
Jay: And of course that has pretty broad implications for the whole economy as well, because, I mean, we’ve been saying on The Real News—and I can—it’s probably rather obvious to people that if demand doesn’t increase, if more people can’t buy more stuff, then the economy continues to stagnate. But that means higher wages, and in fact things are moving in the opposite direction.
Wicks-Lim: Right. That’s right. And other interesting thing to point out is that a lot of these low-wage jobs that are, you know, this large share of the workforce, these are jobs that are not going to be, you know, pushed offshore. You can’t, you know, replace them easily with machines. So, you know, jobs like a childcare worker or a home health aide, these are jobs that need to be done by people within the U.S. border. So these jobs actually have the potential to be, you know, improved, because it’s not easy to say, well, you know, a firm isn’t going to just ship them off to another country, and it’s not—those are not positions that are easily, you know, done away with by replacing them with machines. So these are jobs that have potential to become better-quality jobs.
But you do need—what I argue in the piece is you need a stronger labor movement.
Jay: Thanks for joining us, Jeannette.
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