No degree = higher degree of life challenges

Georgians with college degrees were better able to weather the economic downtrends brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. (AJC file photo / Brant Sanderlin)
Georgians with college degrees were better able to weather the economic downtrends brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. (AJC file photo / Brant Sanderlin)

COVID accelerated demand for workers with higher skills, put others at greater risk

The COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to virtual classes forced more students to develop self-directiveness in their learning, a trait education leaders call essential in workplaces where automation has replaced rote skills and adaptive thinking is expected.

“That’s going to be the future,” said Pike County Schools Superintendent Michael Duncan. “As Google said many, many years ago — if you have to be managed, you can’t work there.”

“We all know there are good jobs out there and more and more are coming to Georgia every day,” said Dana Rickman, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, which sponsored last week’s summit, “Pathways to & Through Post-secondary in the COVID-19 Recovery.” But those new jobs require education post high school, an area where Georgia still lags, said Rickman.

Forty percent of adults 25 and older in Georgia still lack a credential or degree beyond high school. In the past, Rickman said, “If you graduated high school with a good head on your shoulders and a heart ready to do work, you could get a job at a local plant or in the agricultural sector and were able to buy a house, a car and put your kids through school.” No longer, she said.

“Farmers don’t need someone to go and check on the crops or turn on the water; they need someone to fly the drone and program the irrigation system that does that for them. Manufacturers do not need people on the floor to sort widgets; they need mechanics to keep the machines that sort the widgets up and running. All of those folks have to go to school beyond high school to get those jobs,” said Rickman.

COVID has hastened the requisite for higher skills. The widespread job losses to automation predicted by the Southern Regional Education Board to happen in 2030 in Georgia will hit the state five years sooner as the pandemic pushed companies to accelerate their reliance on automation, artificial intelligence, smart devices and virtual reality.

As the SREB brief on COVID’s impact on the region states:

Worker vulnerability has been exacerbated by the pandemic, especially as low-skilled employees tend to concentrate in industries more heavily impacted by shutdowns and ongoing public health restrictions — often the same industries with higher automation potential. Despite millions of workers being declared essential or able to work from home during the pandemic, thus highly unlikely to be out of work, millions more lost hours, lost jobs or had to leave the workforce. Many of these are not captured in official unemployment counts, meaning state leaders are likely underestimating the impacts of the pandemic on their workforces — impacts both from automation and from COVID-19 itself.

At risk in Georgia will be 1.5 million workers and their children, who could be unemployable or stuck in low-wage jobs because they lack the skillsets the changing economy demands, Rickman said.

Georgia workers who weathered COVID were those who already earned more than $40,000 a year, had at least a bachelor’s degree, and were male, said Rickman. “These layoffs impacted Black and Hispanic workers much more than whites over the past year,” she said.

So how does Georgia make its vulnerable workers more recession-proof?

The consensus of educators at the summit: Improve their K-12 learning experiences, ease their path to colleges and technical schools, make college affordable and provide more hands-on internships and job training to also make it relevant.

District superintendents said high school students able to intern with local businesses better understand the real-life demands of the workforce. That knowledge is even more important for this year’s high school graduating seniors, many of whom have been learning remotely since March of their junior year.

“I believe these students have missed out significantly on continuing to mature and develop their collaboration skills. When you go out in the world of work, when you go into research labs, rarely is anyone working in isolation,” said Duncan, the Pike superintendent. “I would strongly encourage for our higher ed partners to think about project-based learning, to think about ways in which students can collaborate on projects and continue to mature and build those collaboration skills.”

Clayton County Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley cited affordability, saying that some of his high school students took jobs to help their families pay bills after parents or guardians lost jobs in the pandemic.

“Our kids need to be able not just to start college, but to finish college,” said Beasley. He urged higher ed campuses to provide supports to students to mitigate learning loss and deal with fallout from the pandemic. “Our students need to know that you value them, that you want them to be successful,” he said, “and are willing to bring all the resources to bear to help them to be successful.”

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