08/01/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Help Wanted

As we move ever closer to this fall's presidential election, we hear more and more about our country's high rate of unemployment. As this is written, it stands at 8.2%, nationally. This means that over 10 million Americans do not have a job (based on a civilian workforce of approximately 132 million -- Bureau of Labor Statistics data as of July 6, 2012). Yet, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that there are some 3.2 million jobs that employers can't fill -- today. What's going on?

If we look more closely at the BLS data, it is possible to see that our unemployment problems may have more to do with education than with the current state of the economy. No doubt, a great number of jobs have been lost. Many, especially those requiring little skill or education, will never return, according to Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce (see Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, June 2010).

As job creation resumes, Carnevale estimates that over 60% of new positions will require some level of post-secondary preparation, and that 33% will require a bachelor's degree. While the recession is accelerating the transition, future jobs will become increasingly dependent on post-secondary education.

Even for craft positions, employers increasingly seek new hires with more advanced skills and knowledge. As an example, John Lotshaw of Huntington-Ingalls Industries, a Gulf-based ship builder, has noted that "While entry level craftsmen (welders, pipe fitters, carpenters) don't spend much time on computers (initially), as people move up the ranks, they spend more and more time with them. Someone in a skilled trade who also knows computers is an all-around, valuable player."

It is becoming clearer that a strengthening economy will be dependent upon a supply of skilled and educated workers. For those with a bachelor's degree, the unemployment rate now is 4.1% (BLS data), a level that nears full employment. Having the "sheep skin" may be worth the cost, after all.

It is estimated that 86 million members of America's workforce (about 65%) are without a degree. This, at a time when the BLS tells us that "all of the increase in employment over the past two decades has been among workers who have taken at least some college classes or who have associate or bachelor's degrees..." (Back to College," BLS Spotlight on Statistics, September 2010).

To sum up, our current rate of unemployment and the skills gap reported by the Chamber of Commerce won't be reduced until we wake up to the fact that we can't compete in a knowledge-based, global economy with a falling rate of degree attainment among our workers. Without an educated workforce, we will see a permanent decline in both our economy and our standard of living.