Stark evidence of the value of education for Atlanta workers

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For Atlantans without a degree, good jobs are hard to get and just as hard to keep.

The new research out of the Brookings Institution may surprise no one, especially those struggling to make ends meet in a dead-end job, yet the information clarifies the stark challenge facing local and state leaders.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber hosted a pair of Brookings researchers at a forum in mid-August that was intended to inform, and galvanize, business executives and advocacy groups.

Martha Ross, a fellow at the institution, flashed a chart from a projector that showed employment rates of 29-year-olds based on education level, then stated what all present could see: "The degrees were the most powerful predictor."

She added some other dismal but predictable information, based on economic studies around the country: Low earnings in one’s early 20s predict lower income later in life, as do spells of unemployment in one’s 20s — sobering, if not surprising, news for the generation that came of age during the Great Recession. Also, convicts and women tend to earn less, she said.

Ross’ colleague, Chad Shearer, had more sad statistics: Lower-income people are seeing less wage growth than more fortunate citizens, and they’re less likely to win a good job, which he defined based on pay, stability and benefits. Fewer than half of metro Atlanta’s jobs meet his standard.

And what defines the lucky half?

“Education is a key determinant of whether somebody is going to be able to get a good job,” Shearer said, piling on to what Ross had said: Even with a degree, women and minorities, generally speaking, fare worse.

Bem Joiner, a man in the audience, stood during the question-and-answer part of the event, and pointed to an underlying issue: “a lack of cultural understanding.” It was a nice way of saying racial bias.

Young job seekers must “code switch” to have a chance in a job interview, said Joiner, who is black. “The numbers seem kind of off in this city that is the home of Dr. King.” What can be done, he wanted to know.

Shearer, the numbers guy, had a response: “civic players” must play matchmaker between businesses and job seekers. He used the phrase “boots on the ground.”

Bem Joiner rose from the audience at a Metro Atlanta Chamber event to say that cultural bias among employers undermines job seekers. TY TAGAMI / AJC

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A woman on a follow-up panel continued that conversation. Networking is key, said Lindsey Craft-Goins, a Microsoft employee who encourages schools to adopt technology. The career-minded need to take the initiative, and the civic players who are helping them need to ensure they show up at the right events and meet the right people. “We speak to people in front of us,” she said.

As if to underscore that point, the Chamber invited a young man who seemed an exception to the bar chart data presented earlier.

Macio Thompkins is an inspector with Atlanta’s Watershed Management Department. He came from what he described as a hardscrabble youth, and saw the people of his childhood walking paths he didn’t want to follow.

“I really felt in my heart that I was going to wind up in prison or dead,” said Thompkins, 25.

He landed a job as a city sanitation worker, which might not seem a lucky stroke. Yet it led to connections and, eventually, because he was ambitious and courted advice, a transfer to his current job. It has a better career arc than trash collection. “I wouldn’t be here today without my mentor,” he said. “That’s just the bottom line.”

He got an applause.

The audience was hungry for an uplifting story after all that bleak Brookings data.

Ross and Shearer had some promising news to deliver, though.

Leaders can help improve the outlook, but it would have to involve a concerted and coordinated effort by industry and by educators, from kindergarten through college: stronger career and technical education training with a heavy dose of mentoring; more support for at-risk students who make it to college, with better a deal on financial aid and better guidance; and “on ramps” to jobs, such as internships and more job-specific training.

It sounds like a lot of expensive, hard work.

In the meantime, although the cards are stacked against people on the low end of the education ladder, they can maximize their chances with the right choices early in life. Choosing an entry-level job in the right sector can lead to opportunities later, especially after some training and job-hopping with the sector, Shearer said. In metro Atlanta, construction, logistics, manufacturing and government account for half the good jobs, so that’s not a bad place to start.

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