An Education Crisis and CUs

Without changes, future members might slip out of the middle class.

December 1, 2010

Sometimes I drive by a local high school on my way to work. I see buses and parents dropping off kids with backpacks. The majority head into school. But my eyes are drawn to the handful of students heading in the opposite direction—the day’s first truants. A few more will follow with each passing class and, again, when the lunch period begins.

I know some great young guys who were chronic truants just a few years ago. They’re loving dads, devoted husbands, and hard-working employees, but they all seem to toil at lower-paying jobs without benefits. It’s tough to see a young man collecting disability at the age of 28 because he wrecked his back loading furniture and appliances on and off a truck ever since he left high school.

When I graduated from high school in 1970 you could still enjoy a middle-class lifestyle with a high-school diploma. Even high-school dropouts landed decent-paying jobs. In fact, almost three-quarters of the nation’s work force in 1970 was made up of high-school graduates and high-school dropouts, according to a June 2010 report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Because there were so many good-paying manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs, you didn’t need higher education to make a living. Yesterday’s truants could still support a family. Not anymore.

We’re facing an education crisis in the U.S. today—one that puts at risk the long-term financial security of millions of current and future credit union members. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for credit unions.

In a nutshell, we still prepare too many of our kids to enter a labor market that doesn’t exist anymore. Georgetown reports that only one-third of jobs requiring less than a high-school education are full-time positions today. If, however, you hold a graduate degree, there’s a better than 80% chance you’re working full time.

The same study states that our failure to prepare kids for the new economy means that by 2018 three million jobs requiring a postsecondary education will go unfilled. In the past, some of those jobs would have gone to highly skilled and educated immigrants. But as the economies of China and India continue to grow, foreign students educated in the U.S. choose to return home. Compounding the problem is a national immigration policy in dire need of reform if America’s going to be more than a second-rate economic power.

Lost in the emotional debate about undocumented immigrants, building fences, and "anchor babies," is the inability of American businesses to provide the essential work visas to highly skilled immigrants.

Kids today who choose not to get some sort of postsecondary education are in for a rude awakening as they age and expect to live as their parents and grandparents lived. Between 2006 and 2009, the median hourly wage paid for the five fastest growing jobs in terms of numbers was $15.95, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That median, however, is inflated by the inclusion of registered nurses—positions requiring a degree and currently paying a median hourly wage of $30.65.

The other job categories and their median average hourly wages:

  • Food preparers and servers, $8.28;

  • Home health aides, $9.85;

  • Warehouse and stock clerks, $10.08; and

  • Medical assistants, $13.77.

There will be jobs that pay enough to enable a single worker or a couple to support a family, buy a car, qualify for a mortgage, send kids to college, and prepare for a secure retirement. But unless we change our national educational priorities and policies, and begin training workers for a markedly different economy, a lot of Americans will slip out of the middle class. Will they be your members?

The battle that determines who will serve those who are better off financially will be fierce. Are you prepared for that fight?

MARK CONDON is senior vice president, business and consumer publishing, for the Credit Union National Association. Contact him at 608-231-4078 or at