Voices of Digital Communities

Which America Do Americans Live In? Check the Diploma

It’s official: there are now three Americas.

by / August 20, 2012

It’s official: there are now three Americas.

A recent study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce contains stunning news.  It is about the recession that began in December 2007 and the slow recovery that started in 2010.  Americans think of it as having been a terrible time for employment, and they are right in thinking so – but it depends a lot on which American economy they live in.   

Americans with a bachelor’s degree or better are part of an economy that has increased employment by 2.2 million jobs since the end of 2007.  That’s right: gained jobs, not lost them. In 2009, the Land of the High-Skilled was home to 28% of the population 25 years and older, or 56 million people, according to the US Census Bureau.  I’m lucky enough to be one of them.  

If Americans have some university education or an associate’s degree from a community or technical school, their economy has recovered 90% of the jobs lost in the recession.  It gave up 1.8 million jobs but clawed back 1.6 million in the slow and painful recovery.  The Land of the Middle-Skilled was home to 29% of the +25 population, or 58 million people, in 2009.

Americans who have only a secondary school diploma, or never finished high school, live in a very different economy – one that has shed 5.8 million jobs since 2007.  Forty-three percent of the +25 population, or 87 million people, live in the Land of the Low-Skilled.   

To put it in percentages, High-Skilled Land has seen nearly 4% job growth since the end of 2007.  Hardly stellar but impressive for the aftermath of a deep-seated financial crisis.  Middle-Skilled Land has seen a 1% decline in the number of jobs.  And Low-Skilled Land, home to a plurality of my fellow citizens, has seen nearly a 7% decline in employment opportunities.

The same thing is taking place to a greater or lesser extent in every industrialized nation.  The European Union is even more economically challenged than the US at the moment.  But Commission forecasts say that employment demand in High-Skilled Land will rise by more than 3.5 million as the share of high-skilled jobs increases from 29% in 2010 to about 35% of the total in 2020.  The share of jobs for Middle-Skilled Land will remain steady at about 50% of the total.  But the share of jobs available in Low-Skilled Land will fall from 20% of total jobs in 2010 to less than 15% in 2020.   Given the current financial turmoil sweeping the continent, that may be optimistic.  

If you are community leader in one of these nations – elected, appointed or volunteer – what can you do about all this?  I have one simple suggestion: start your own immigration program.

No, not that kind.  I’m talking about encouraging immigration, right in your community, from Low-Skilled Land to Middle-Skilled Land, and from Middle-Skilled Land to High-Skilled Land.

Communities need to do their utmost to strengthen the role of community colleges and technical schools in their regions.  These institutions should be closely tied to local business, so that they teach employable skills, and their instructors should be included in government-led efforts to build a knowledge-based workforce.  Too often, we think only about universities and colleges, and forget about the rest.  

Communities also need to help the citizens of the Middle-Skilled Land to migrate to the Land of the High-Skilled.  This is also a job for educational institutions, local business and government leaders working together to open doors, communicate about opportunities, and keep the pressure on to improve skills throughout a person’s career.  

One thing that tends not to work is promoting immigration from Low-Skilled Land to High-Skilled Land.  In America, we call this effort “Every Kid Deserves to Go to College” – and it is failing miserably.  Of the 58 million who live in our Middle-Skilled Land, 74% have “some college” – which means that they entered a four-year institution and dropped out, either because the work was too hard for them or they could not afford to continue.  That doesn’t sound like a formula for success to me.  

How many versions of your country are there, and how many people in your community live in each?  How many will live in those overlapping lands in 2020?  The answer has everything to do with your community’s economic and social success in the next decade.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.