Coming U.S. Workforce Unprepared for Knowledge Economy, Author Warns

Published January 1, 2006

Review of The 2010 Meltdown: Solving the Impending Jobs Crisis
Written by Edward E. Gordon (Praeger Publishers, 2005)
288 pages, $39.95, ISBN 0275984362

Edward E. Gordon, president of Imperial Consulting Corporation in Chicago and Palm Desert, California, has serious misgivings about the future of America in the world economy, which he documents while offering a possible solution in his new book, The 2010 Meltdown: Solving the Impending Jobs Crisis.

Gordon’s earlier book, Skill Wars (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999), drew attention to the workforce challenges of a global, knowledge-driven economy where foreign countries were increasingly offering manufacturers not only lower-paid workers but often better-educated, lower-paid workers. The 2010 Meltdown addresses how advances in technology, increasing globalization, a major demographic shift, and a shortage of well-educated workers are converging to produce a rapidly approaching “meltdown.”

The demographic shift will begin in 2010 as the Baby Boomers begin to retire and leave the workforce. The smaller generation of workers replacing them will be unprepared educationally to function in a knowledge-based economy.

“The global, bottom-line demographic problem is that too many skilled people are dropping out of the world economy at one time,” Gordon writes. “There simply aren’t enough skilled Generation X or Y workers to keep economies humming.”

U.S. at ‘Educational Crossroad’

While technology and global trade have dramatically changed the nature of the workplace and the productivity of American industrial output over the past 20 years, the output of the country’s increasingly costly K-12 educational system has changed little during this period, according to student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP scores, Gordon notes, show a majority of students are not proficient in either reading or math.

“What the NAEP scores make abundantly clear is that America has reached an important educational crossroad,” Gordon writes. “After more than two decades of pursuing education reform and increasing school expenditures, U.S. student achievement appears stagnant. The majority of U.S. students are deficient in areas of the basic knowledge they need to live successfully in a democratic, technologically complex nation.”

Improvement Is Possible

Gordon supports his argument with a range of depressing statistics, including the recent revelation from a Manhattan Institute study that one in three students fails to graduate high school. He then addresses workforce-training issues at length, including a review of what other countries are doing to respond to changing workforce needs. This is followed by a valuable series of case-study solutions showing how different communities and businesses nationwide are creating career training and education programs more attuned to twenty-first century needs.

While these solutions deal primarily with improving and retraining America’s existing workforce, Gordon also suggests how to improve America’s public schools so they produce graduates well-equipped to handle the technological complexities of the modern workplace and capable of becoming the knowledge workers of tomorrow. What is needed to achieve this, he contends, is “a revolutionary approach to community schooling”–a greater diversity of small, local schools that are parent- and teacher-driven and curriculum-diverse.

Unfortunately, while many of Gordon’s proposals for improving K-12 education may be desirable, they are unlikely to light a revolutionary fire for school reform. For example, he calls for more parental involvement, better-paid teachers, better math and science education for teachers, and better principals.

However, what is more disappointing–since he wrote favorably about the potential of school choice in Skill Wars–is Gordon’s cursory treatment of the idea of ending the public school monopoly and allowing market forces to offer educational choices to parents. He represents the debate over school choice as being driven by competing “conspiracy viewpoints” of “liberals and conservative ideologues” and suggests the reality lies somewhere in between. Still, he recognizes that in a reformed system, funding must follow the child.

Renaissance 2010 Insufficient

Gordon presents Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 plan as an example of how to achieve a greater diversity of local schools. The plan calls for recreating more than 10 percent of the city’s schools as independently operated contract schools, charter schools, and district-operated small schools by 2010. Gordon questions whether this reform will sweep over all of Chicago’s 600 public schools.

In the reviewer’s opinion, the scope and timetable of the Renaissance 2010 plan seem inadequate when set against the depth of the Chicago public schools’ educational failure and the urgent need to get hundreds of thousands of children on track to better schooling and more productive lives.

For example:

  • the 2003 Trial Urban NAEP showed 41 percent of Chicago’s eighth-graders were essentially illiterate (“below basic” in reading), with only 15 percent reading at a proficient level;
  • despite mayoral control of the system since 1995, only about half the students entering ninth grade in Chicago’s public high schools ultimately earn a high school diploma;
  • a recent study of Columbia College freshmen who graduated from Chicago’s public schools showed 75 percent had to take remedial classes in writing and 95 percent had to take remedial classes in math.

With other urban public school systems producing similarly poor results, it’s hardly surprising that 84 percent of U.S. manufacturers are dissatisfied with the performance of the nation’s public schools.

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute.