When it comes to low wages, start with higher education

ccording to 2016 U.S. News report, young workers are making about 20 percent less than the generation before them. Low wages are a problem throughout the U.S. and in Southwest Minnesota.

Blame for the low wages has been directed toward politicians, too many government regulations on businesses and jobs being shipped overseas.

But an article and op-ed piece in Monday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune put a lot of blame on our higher education priorities. The front page article described how factories in Minnesota are trying to keep workers past age 65 because there are no skilled workers to replace them.

“Hanging on to talented older workers steeped in institutional knowledge has become a critical issue for many manufacturing businesses,” the article states. “About 78 million baby boomers are nearing retirement and the National Association of Manufactures estimates that factories will need 3.5 million new factory workers in the next 10 years just to keep production lines and distribution routes going.”

The article also states that factories are struggling to grow because they don’t have enough well-trained staffers.

In that same issue, an op-ed piece written by Katherine Kersten of the Center of American Experiment argues that our post-education decisions are dooming our young people to failure. Kersten talked about the mother who feared her son lost the chance of a good life because he chose to attend a technical school rather than enrolling into a four-year college.

“Today, too many high school graduates start down the four-year road because they mistakenly think it’s the only route to success. Too often, they wind up dropping out, jobless and in debt, and lacking the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-century workforce,” Kersten writes.

“In recent decades, our society has developed a powerful cultural bias that a four-year college degree is optimal for everyone, and that any other path to a career is second-best, “for dummies.” But in fact, young people who choose alternative pathways — like a two-year associate’s degree, an apprenticeship or an occupational certificate — can often land in-demand, well-paying jobs fast, avoid crippling debt and look forward to a secure future. Some earn significantly more than classmates who choose the four-year route.”

Kersten also points out that an increasing number of young people are adrift and living in mom’s basement, while thousands of skilled jobs are left unfilled.

Kersten cites U.S. Census Bureau data that more than 100,000 college-educated Minnesotans are working as retail salespeople, waiting on tables and working as maids and janitors.

Are bad trade deals to blame for lost jobs and low wages?

Maybe. But is it the only reason?

The world is changing. The economy is shifting. Maybe our attitudes toward higher education must adapt to the changing workforce needs.