President Barack Obama spent yesterday in California, fielding questions about creating economic opportunity and putting America back to work at a Silicon Valley town hall hosted by social media site LinkedIn. As the nation grapples with a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, the connection between education and ending the nation's unemployment crisis dominated the conversation.
"When we were at our peak it was in large part because we were doing a better job than anyone else in the world in training our workers," Obama told the crowd. "The rest of the world is catching up." He pointed out that China and India are increasing the number of high school and college graduates well-trained in math and science and ready for the tech jobs of the future, while the United States still struggles with ending its high school dropout crisis.
Indeed, the high dropout rate is sure to continue to spell bad news for the American economy. It's become trendy to question the value of a college degree, but August data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the more education someone has, the better chance she has of being employed. Only around 5 percent of the nation's almost 47 million college graduates are currently unemployed. In comparison, 8.2 percent of people with only some college or an associate's degree and 9.6 percent of people with only a high school diploma are unemployed. Hardest hit are the nation's high school dropouts: almost 15 percent are jobless.
But what about those unemployed workers that already have a degree? When an out-of-work IT analyst from Chicago asked what kind of education and training programs she should seek out to boost her future job prospects, the president acknowledged that the current education system and labor market makes it tough to pick up new skills. "The one thing we can do is to make it easier for you to go back to school if you think there are skill sets that you need," he said.
A request for words of encouragement from another unemployed IT worker who was laid off after 22 years on the job, spurred the president to make it clear that "the problem is not you. It's the economy as a whole."
The president said that people like the IT workers, who already have degrees and marketable job skills, will be in demand once the nation gets its fiscal house in order and companies start hiring again. However, he warned, if we don't fund education reforms and "don't prepare our people with the skills they need, we're going to have problems."