The economy and education: Aligned or on collision course?

The head of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce warned that 40% of today’s construction workforce is expected to retire by 2030.  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
The head of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce warned that 40% of today’s construction workforce is expected to retire by 2030. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The pandemic saw demise of low-level jobs and greater demand for higher skills

Are our schools aligned with economic trends or are they on a collision course?

Georgia has long sent too few of its high school graduates into higher education or postsecondary training. The pandemic has worsened the consequences of that leaky education pipeline, both to the state and the students, according to a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum Wednesday. The forum discussed the extent to which COVID-19 changed what workers do, where they do it and implications for communities.

Among the most intriguing data points was that by 2030, 60% of all U.S. job growth will be in 25 metropolitan areas, including Atlanta. Many of those new jobs will allow employees to work at home all or some of the time, as shown by another statistic shared by Chris Clark, the president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce: By 2040, about 75% of the workforce will be home-based, hybrid or working in multiple locations, a trend expedited by the pandemic, which led workers to download Zoom and turn their kitchen tables into conference tables.

Speaking from the Georgia-Pacific headquarters in downtown Atlanta, Clark told the audience of education and business leader, “Within five blocks of where we’re sitting right now is over a million square feet of empty, vacant commercial real estate. It’s going to change our cities as people will work at home.”

In an increasingly competitive market for high-skilled workers, Clark said, “Employees used to move to where the jobs were. This next generation will move to where they want to live, work, play and pray.”

Another trend hastened: A more insistent push for ever-deepening job skills. “By 2025, half of the workforce will need upskilling‚” said Clark. “Half of the kids graduating college today will need new skills. It used to be that we’d need new skills about every eight to 10 years.” In this period of rapid and constant changes, Clark said workers must learn new job skills every 18 months.

Upheavals are occurring at warp speed now, especially in the retail trade.By 2025, 27% of all retail will be e-commerce. By 2040, 95% of everything you buy will be online,” said Clark. “This is a huge transformation in the economy.”

Some other traditional fields have been less impacted by new consumer dynamics, but face another serious threat: too few replacement workers. For example, 40% of today’s construction workforce is expected to retire by 2030, said Clark.

“Who’s going to come fix your house? We’re not giving the kids the skills that they need to take these jobs that are going to pay a ton of money,” said Clark. “Plumbers — I mean you can’t train enough plumbers right now. Some things never change. The economy may change, but you still need indoor plumbing and somebody to work on it when it goes bad. You still need people to build stuff.”

By 2050, Clark said 40% of today’s jobs will be erased by artificial intelligence and automation. “Now we’re going to replace those with other jobs. By 2030, we will need about 6 million more workers than we have today in America. But they are going to be much more high-skilled workers.”

And that is the challenge facing Georgia schools and colleges, said Dana Rickman, president of the Georgia Partnership. Rickman said low-skill jobs that pay a living wage are fast disappearing, replaced by new positions that require education beyond high school. especially in STEM and health fields. (”Not every degree is going to work,” said Rickman. “If you get a degree in French literature, you may be sleeping a little longer on your parents’ couch.”)

“About 40% of Georgia’s adult population does not have a degree or credential beyond high school. “Currently, manufacturers don’t need someone to sort the widgets; they need someone to fix the machine that is sorting the widgets,” she said.

By 2025, 45% of Georgia’s total workforce risks unemployment or being stuck in low-wage jobs because of the acceleration of technology and automation, Rickman said. Between March and July of 2020, with economic closings in full force, the least likely Georgian to be laid off was a male college graduate with at least a bachelor’s degree earning more than $40,000 a year. In 2019, the per capita mean income in Georgia was $31,000.

Those Georgians who can’t land decent-paying jobs suffer more than private losses, said Rickman. “If you have a community that doesn’t have much, they can’t give much. They can’t afford to eat at that bakery that just opened. They can’t afford to go to that new downtown brew pub. They cannot contribute to the local PTA or marching band.”

Rickman said Georgia must be intentional in its conversations and practices linking education with economic and workforce development policy. “Education is the essential driver of personal success,” she said, “but also overall economic success for Georgia.”

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