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Labor Market, Not Schools, Will Aid Latino Education Woes

July 21, 1996|Richard Rothstein | Richard Rothstein is research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and adjunct professor of public policy at Occidental College

Supply-side theories may be out of fashion in economics, but we cling to them in education. Ignoring common-sense and evidence, we believe that the number of highly paid skilled jobs depends upon the supply of educated workers that schools can produce. Forget about the limited demand for professional and technical workers; if schools don't prepare everyone for these jobs, we must have a crisis.

Thus, a recently released RAND study on Latino immigrants and their education has stimulated the wrong response. Instead of focusing on how to create more economic opportunity, commentators wring their hands about how to educate Mexican Americans to seize opportunities that don't exist.

According to RAND analysts Georges Vernez and Allan Abrahamse, Mexicans who come to the United States have surprisingly high aspirations to get an eduction, and immigrant children who enroll in school generally stick with it. These immigrant children don't do as well as native whites, on average, but differences are narrow--70% of immigrant Latino high school sophomores go on to graduate, compared with 85% of native whites, and 65% of Latino immigrant grads actually enroll in college, compared with 62% of native whites.

But RAND notes that aspirations and attainment then drop precipitously for subsequent generations of Latinos born here. For example, only 45% actually enroll in college.

Immigrants who abandon homes to make new lives here tend to be unusually motivated and ambitious; their descendants, whose motivation and other personal characteristics are distributed more typically, are less likely to have these virtues. But the falloff is, for some indicators, more drastic for Mexican Americans than for other groups. For example, while Mexican American mothers who want their children to attend college falls by 30% from immigrant to subsequent generations, for white immigrants it declines by only 14%.

"These youths," says the RAND study, "will eventually enter a national economy . . . in transition . . . that will demand more educated workers and fewer less-educated workers." To most of us, this is an obvious truth. The Department of Labor, for example, reports that "computer scientists and systems analysts" are the fastest-growing occupations, expected to add 755,000 new jobs from 1994 to 2005. Other occupations requiring advanced education will also grow--school teachers and registered nurses, for example.

But if we examine the 10 fastest-growing occupations, the pattern changes. Many of these jobs require little education. Retail-sales workers, janitors, cashiers, food-service workers, kitchen workers each will add more than half a million positions. Some even require less education than they used to: Cashiers need less skill to scan bar codes than to operate cash registers. Word-processing programs with "spell check" reduce clerical-skill requirements.

In 1990, Lawrence Mishel and Ruy A. Teixeira of the Economic Policy Institute calculated changing skill requirements for each occupation and industry. They found that while some require more skill, others require less. On balance, it's a wash. Across the entire economy, the added skills needed in 1998, compared with 10 years earlier, require only that new hires have one-fourth of a grade level more schooling than the retirees they replace--two months more education, on average, needed for those attending high school in the '90s than in the '40s or '50s.

It is often proclaimed that America is becoming a high-skill society, in which the few without skills will be left behind. In reality, a large majority don't share the rewards of this new age. From 1979 to 1989, the real wages of median workers declined by 7%. Eighty percent of American workers earn less money than their counterparts earned 15 years earlier. (For example, most 45-year-olds earn less than similar 45-year-olds did 15 years ago.) These problems are most acutely felt by noncollege-educated workers, 75% of the total; but wages of college grads are now also declining.

Imagine we suddenly cut off peasant immigration from Mexico, Central America or Indochina. Would we need fewer janitorial, retail and restaurant kitchen workers? Imagine that Mexican Americans heeded experts' warnings and all attended college. Would janitorial openings suddenly decline in proportion? Would computer-scientist positions expand in response? Of course not. From an occupational viewpoint, too many people already attend college, the oversupply depressing wages for scientists and engineers. We now produce 25% more scientists and engineers than we need.

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