How GOP, Democratic conventions can really educate voters

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama try to compete on 'creating jobs.' But millions of good jobs go begging. Why? Workers need higher education. That's the better issue to debate.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/file
Graduating students listen to President Obama speak at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony in 2010.

For voters worried about an unemployment rate stuck above 8 percent, this year’s GOP and Democratic political conventions can provide insights on each party’s promises about creating jobs.

There’s only one problem.

The deeper issue is less about job creation and more about how Americans can better train themselves for the high-level jobs that employers cannot currently fill.

Ann Romney touched on the issue in her speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday. She touted the low unemployment rate in Massachusetts when her husband was governor and then also noted that he had set up a tuition-free scholarship at state universities for the top 25 percent of high school graduates.

It turns out, according to a report released Wednesday by a Washington think tank, that the parts of the United States that have a more educated workforce also have lower joblessness.

The study by the Brookings Institution looked at job postings in 100 metropolitan areas from 2006 to 2011 and then compared the data with the educational attainment in each place. In Boston, for example, nearly half of job openings require a bachelor’s degree or higher while 43 percent of residents have that level of education. This close match of job types and schooling levels partly accounts for the state’s low unemployment rate, which was 6.1 percent in July.

Nationwide, cities whose workers have higher skills are doing better in the economic recovery, the study found. The unemployment rate in those areas is lower by an average of two percentage points. In 2011, there were 5.6 openings for applicants with a college degree or more. For those with only a high school diploma or less, there were only 1.6 openings.

Both parties address the issue of higher education in their platforms. Republicans seek more private-sector solutions in student loans and types of schools while Democrats want better subsidized student loans and more government support of higher education. But both parties’ main political pitches so far have been about job creation and less about workers moving up to jobs that go begging for lack of highly educated workers.

“Educational attainment makes workers more employable, creates demand for complementary less-educated workers, and facilitates entrepreneurship,” the Brookings study states.

A similar report on education by the Lumina Foundation and Georgetown University found that the recession has accelerated the shift toward employers seeking better educated workers. The jobless rate for college grads is 6.8 percent, while for those with only a high school diploma, it’s nearly 24 percent.

“College has proved to be the best umbrella in this historic economic storm and the best preparation for the economy that is emerging in recovery,” the report stated.

Merely having a college degree, however, may not always be enough. The type of degree and, even more, having a master’s degree can greatly influence a person’s prospects. And for many available jobs, other types of postsecondary training may do, such as that provided by technical institutes. An estimated 17 million Americans with a college degree are underemployed or not working in their chosen field.

Higher education, if chosen well, remains the best investment for job seekers – and for government leaders trying to lower the unemployment rate.

The presidential contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama needs to shift toward a debate on their approaches to higher education. Their goals on higher ed may be close but their methods differ. Voters would then have a clearer idea on which candidate will address the core economic issue – educating workers for the jobs that the economy is already creating.

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