The Education Department was created not so long ago, in 1980. But from a labor force perspective, 1980 was a different epoch. Back then, two-thirds of jobs required no more than a high school education. Remarkably, 30 percent of good jobs were held by high school dropouts. Now, 55 percent of good jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree.
And that is why President Trump’s proposal to merge the Education Department with the Labor Department is an idea worth serious consideration.
There was a time, perhaps, when these departments could stand apart. But no more. At their core, both share the same goal: to create fully functional adults. In a capitalist economy, that means you have to have a job. And in today’s world, to get a good job, you need an education.
This new reality is a challenge to the traditional K-12, postsecondary and labor market silos in America. Because education and careers are inextricably bound, we need to take an “all-one-system” perspective that connects the education and career dots from middle school through college and early careers.
Since the early 1980s, the K-12 system has lost ground in its ability to make students career-ready, especially at the high school level. The K-12 system we now have is a college-for-all system. It was created as a reaction to the proliferation of direct job training — vocational education — in high school, which overwhelmingly led students to be tracked, based on race, class, and gender, into low-skilled and low-paying jobs.
But almost half of high school graduates don’t get a college certificate or degree by age 26, and they are left wandering the labor market with nowhere to go. Only 20 percent of those who end their education with a high school diploma or less get a job that ultimately pays a median of $55,000 a year.
With the shift to an academic curriculum and the virtual elimination of vocational preparation in high school, the K-12 system narrowed to a single academic track focused on college readiness. And career preparation shifted almost entirely to the postsecondary system.
Students now get almost no exposure to career opportunities in high school. Career-related courses constitute only 2.5 out of 27 required high school credits, while 23 credits are academic in nature.
The pendulum has swung too far, and the system isn’t working. The goal of our education system should be to ensure successful transitions from youth dependency to independent adulthood and successful family formation. Before the 1980s, the age at which young adult workers made the median earnings necessary for independence and family formation was 26. That has risen to 34. This is a new stage in the economic life cycle that is poorly served by our current education, training and employment structure.
Our institutions were created in such a way that they don’t connect. They respond to different incentives. The K-12 system is rewarded for access and completion. Colleges and universities compete on prestige. Employers use a college credential as a proxy for competency and complain frequently they can’t trust that college graduates are capable of doing the job for which they were arguably trained.
With one department, these incentives could be realigned, and the system for educating and training workers could be more seamless. This proposed new department could integrate curriculums and establish greater transparency and accountability among high school, college and careers. Ideally, beginning in high school, all students would get:
• Required career counseling that assesses individual talents, interests, values and personality traits and ties each of these to alternative occupational pathways.
• Firsthand exposure to alternative occupational pathways through internships and other applied learning opportunities.
• Work experience to cultivate basic employability skills such as conscientiousness and collegiality in diverse workplaces.
• Access to certificates and industry-based certifications, thus improving postsecondary access and affordability.
Despite some rumblings in the administration that this combined department could pave the way back to vocational education, that is the wrong approach. Students need exposure to career options starting in high school. But we don’t want to reinstitute vocational education in high school and re-engage the educational behaviors that have widened income inequality in this country.
With this combined department, we have an opportunity to realize that education and jobs are inextricably linked. People value education for its own sake, of course — but they value it mostly because they want a job. Straightening the path from education to work would be an intergenerational gift to the future workers and employers of America.
Anthony P. Carnevale is the director and founder of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.