12/20/2006 09:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's the Matter with Kids Today?

"Eighty percent of the thirty fastest growing jobs require a college degree." Thus speaks Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings. Often. Her claim parallels the contentions from various commissions that we must educate ever more of our students to an ever higher level to stay globally competitive. In addition, we must end the mismatch between what students know and can do and what employers demand that they know and can do.

Spellings' comment is almost true if you include as a "college degree" the associate's degrees that are delivered by community colleges. If you stick to a more traditional criterion of the bachelor's, then only 67 percent of the fastest growing jobs, as projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, require a degree. Ten of the thirty require a bachelor's and 10 require something more.

Spellings' assertion, though, slides past the fact that rates and numbers often paint extremely different pictures of what is going on. "Fastest growing" is a rate. If I make $1 today and double that for each of the next 4 days, my rate of increase in rapid, but at the end of the week I've only made $31. The fastest growing jobs do not account for very many jobs. In the BLS projections from 2004 to 2014, the number of retail sales clerk positions totals more than the top ten fastest growing jobs combined.

If one looks at sheer numbers of jobs, one sees what we might call the "Wal-Martization of America." The occupations with legions of jobs are mostly in the low-skilled, low pay sectors. Nineteen of the 30 occupations with the largest numbers of jobs are in the "low" or "very low" pay categories such as retail sales, janitors, food prep workers, waiters, home health aides, office clerks, etc. The BLS categorizes all jobs into four quartiles by pay and low paying is truly low paying. The "low paying" 25% of jobs pay from $20,190 to $28,570 a year while the "very low paying" 25% pay less than $20,190. Even the BLS' highest quartile will not strike many as actually "very high paying," $43,600 or better.

The workforce Spellings and the reformers say they want and need is not the workforce our job market actually requires.

When people assert that young people lack the skills that employers demand, they often point to test scores and say something like "Only a third of American students can read at the proficient level or better." This is a horrifically misleading interpretation of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but that is another blog. But employers don't pay any attention to test scores except, on occasion, to scores from the tests that they themselves give as part of the interview process. Michael Handel of the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out that taking a paper and pencil test is a solitary enterprise while most jobs occur in a social setting. Employees who don't understand what they need to do can consult a manual or ask another employee or a supervisor. If done while taking a test, this is called cheating.

Tests have no social context. Jobs do. Perhaps that is why recent studies indicate employers want the "soft skills" that used to go under the rubric of "work ethic:" reliability, communication skills, timeliness, attitude, etc.

Handel's research and that of Paul Barton at Educational Testing Service indicate that it's not the skills lack that bugs employers although that's a convenient target. It's really just that young people are young. Period. Handel reports on some focus group leaders saying "we were surprised at just how much animosity there is toward young people in the employer community. In the focus groups, the response was almost scatological." Barton has a similar take: "Employers, other than those in industries that rely heavily on teenagers, do not want to hire high school graduates until they are well into their 20s, irrespective of how well they might do in high school" (emphasis in the original). And the report, Tough Choices or Tough Times (panned in an earlier blog) wants to end high school after 10th grade?

To answer the question in the title of the blog, the problem with kids today is that they are kids. They'll get over it and employers will get over disliking them, but it will take some years. Whether you see the process as maturation or inhuman conditioning will depend on your view of society generally.

On April 26, 1983 A Nation At Risk warned us of a "rising tide of mediocrity" allegedly coming out of our schools. If an unfriendly foreign power had inflicted our educational system on us, the report declared, "We might well have considered it an act of war." The mediocrities that graduated six weeks after that document hit the streets have blown out the candles on their 40th birthday cake. As workers age 25 to 35, they presided over the longest economic expansion in the nation's history.

They are probably inhabiting executive suites and complaining about kids today.