New Normal: The Evolving Link Between Learning and Earning

Connecting postsecondary and workforce data is critical to preparing students for careers that will earn them a living wage.

by Tim Taylor / July 27, 2015
To prepare students for the jobs of the future, states need to connect the dots between postsecondary and workforce data. Ford Motor Company via Flickr CC by 2.0
How well is our nation’s education system aligned to the realities of the 21st century workforce and globally competitive economy? Well, just ask any parents whose kid has had to move home to live in their basement after graduating college in the last several years.
There’s a popular phrase that makes a powerful point: learning is earning. It’s true. The more education you have, the more likely you are to become and remain gainfully employed, and thus climb higher up the economic ladder.
But not all educational credentials and experiences are created equal. And there is an important difference between what qualifies someone for a job and what prepares someone for a career that provides at least a middle class lifestyle.
Now more than ever before, education proves your workforce worth, but it’s also your demonstrated skills and behaviors — critical thinking, problem solving, and balancing leadership with teamwork — that will make you more employable and valuable in the marketplace.
Not long ago, college graduates typically earned their way into a job based on factors that historically have been important markers for job readiness, including where you attended school, what you studied, and how well you did. This was the norm.
But times have changed. In the words of author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “average is over.” He sounds the alarm that what used to ensure job security in the past no longer applies. Friedman writes: “Doing a job in an average way will not return an average lifestyle any longer. There is no good job today that does not require more and better education to get it, hold it or advance in it.”
This is becoming increasingly clear in our communities and impacting the pocketbooks of more and more families. However, it is only by digging into the existing workforce and earnings data that we will identify and understand ways to better prepare students for today’s workforce needs and values.
Neil Irwin’s recent New York Times article entitled, “Why American Workers Without Much Education Are Being Hammered,” cites a Hamilton Project report that “the median earnings of working men aged 30 to 45 without a high school diploma fell 20 percent from 1990 to 2013, when adjusted for inflation."
This is the new normal. Previous generations were able to earn a middle class income with relatively little education. Today, however, the low-skill jobs lost during the great recession are not being replaced, and the new jobs for less educated workers are paying less.
America’s education system has not kept up with these changing trends, and does not optimally prepare students to meet these emerging demands in the workforce, business environment, and global economy.
Indeed, we have a moral obligation to provide every child a quality education. But inherent in that duty is also an economic imperative to ensure that students graduate high school with the knowledge, skills, and behaviors to succeed in this era of higher standards and expectations.
The way to ensure effective alignment between the education system and the workforce is to constantly measure and monitor data on postsecondary employment.
This means linking K-12 data systems to postsecondary data systems, which is largely in practice already. But it also means linking postsecondary data systems to workforce data systems.
A new push by the Data Quality Campaign responds to that need and aims to fill that data void. The Preparing Students for Jobs report urges states to “securely link K–12 data with postsecondary and workforce data, such as program completion or employment status, to evaluate which schools, programs, and pathways help students be successful in college and careers.”
As we work to fix what is broken, modernize what is outdated, and improve the overall quality of our nation’s public education system, it is reliable information that shows us where the needs and opportunities are.
The business community, in the interest of students, applauds and supports this effort. It is an important tool, for educators and employers alike, in adjusting to the new normal.

Tim Taylor is co-founder and executive director of America Succeeds, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of business leaders and organizations providing an informed and credible business voice for education.