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Zombies and Other Myths

This blog was authored by JFF's former CEO Marlene B. Seltzer.

In his recent New York Times column “Jobs and Skills and Zombies,” Paul Krugman argues that the skills gap is a complete “myth” that diverts attention away from the real issues of job growth and unemployment. 

While there is no question that job creation is critical in getting the U.S. economy moving again, Krugman’s claim of a skills gap myth flies in the face of reality. Numerous studies have shown that there are regions and sectors across the country facing a shortage of skilled workers, especially for middle-skill jobs. More importantly, there is broad consensus that the future prosperity of the United States will involve the creation of high-skill, high-wage jobs that require postsecondary credentials.  

A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the United States is lagging behind almost every industrialized nation in training workers for these middle-skill jobs. The U.S. now ranks 14th in postsecondary attainment, and most alarmingly, 3rd to last for attainment by lower-income students. Closing this gap is essential in meeting the needs of growth industries like health care, advanced manufacturing, and IT.

It’s important to note that these are well paying jobs; most also come with benefits and provide clear opportunities for advancement. They can provide a ladder out of poverty and into the middle class for so many families struggling to succeed in today’s economy.

Fortunately, there are significant reforms and innovations underway across the country that are bringing together community colleges and universities, community organizations, philanthropy, and business groups to redesign education and training systems. These efforts involve new education and technology delivery models that accelerate learning and lead to careers in these high-demand fields.

Perhaps most disturbing was Krugman’s assertion that focusing on the skills gap is “blaming workers for their own plight.” The whole premise of these efforts is a deep belief in the potential of individuals and their ability to succeed.

Creating economic prosperity and economic opportunity are two sides of the same coin. We cannot grow our economy without also investing in the education and training of our workers for 21st-century jobs. Demanding we choose one over the other is shortsighted and will only hurt both our economic recovery and worker prosperity. Federal policies need to support and reinforce these interrelated goals.

Perhaps Paul Krugman would like to get out into the field to see for himself how states and communities are moving forward on this dual agenda, and I would be happy to help make that happen.