Great Jobs and Inclusive Growth

My apologies in advance if what I write below about a recent conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis seems circular.  This is not a slam at the two-day meeting on “Opportunity and Inclusive Growth,” but rather pertains to the many inescapable connections among matters of education, families, jobs, income, wealth and other facts and conditions of local and national life.  Connections, for example, that are implicit in Center of the American Experiment’s major, multi-year initiative, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree:  Good News for Students, Parents, and Employers.”

One of the speakers at the conference, held May 22-23, was Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist whose most recent high-profile book, released in 2015, is Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, but who was previously celebrated for his research and writing, starting last century, under the brilliant metaphor of “bowling alone,” as in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

In a quick summary of the conference, the Fed reported that Professor Putnam said that Americans, on average, have been getting both healthier and wealthier over the decades, but that when it comes to indicators of “social participation” such as scouting, service clubs, union membership, or family formation, such measures were higher back in the 1960s than they are now.  Or, as Putnam famously put it, participation in bowling leagues have fallen, too.

Tying a few dots together, Evan Ramstad wrote in the Star Tribune on May 24 that, “Putnam noted the networks of friends and associates that people build for themselves greatly affect their employment and income . . . .”

How might “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” fit in all of this?  One of my emphases ever since American Experiment opened in 1990 has been in demonstrating that that the extraordinary increase in family fragmentation since the 1960s has had many damaging effects, an immense example of which is that huge numbers of poorly educated, unemployed and underemployed men are simply not marriageable in the eyes of most women.

But if such men (as well as women) are not married, doesn’t it stand to reason that their “networks of friends and associates” are limited, leading to fewer chances of finding good jobs and earning a decent, family-supporting living?  In my own life, my networks of friends and associates (especially the former) grew dramatically when I got married.

Without suggesting that anything I’m about to say is easy – quite the opposite is the clear-cut case – but doesn’t it stand to reason that job and career prospects for great numbers of men and women would be much better if they were married?

Or from the flip side, doesn’t it stand to reason that marriage prospects for great numbers of men and women would be much better if they had the kinds of skills that lead to good jobs and solid middle-class careers?

Yes and yes.

In addition to helping Minnesota businesses prosper by assuring they have enough highly trained people for demanding technical and other jobs, the main aim of Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree is informing young people and their parents that there are, in fact, educational routes to first-rate jobs and careers other than baccalaureate degrees.  Think of apprenticeships in the trades and other fields, one-year and two-year certificate programs in scores of occupations, and job training in the military among other pathways.

Now simultaneously think of all the high school graduates who, deep-down, don’t want to seek a four-year degree but who – because of parental, peer, and other pressures – begin one only to wind up dropped out, unemployed or underemployed, and in big student loan debt.

If this American Experiment project succeeds as my colleagues and I are confident it will, it will contribute to denser networks of friends and associates, as other benign results (if only modest ones in each instance) will be more marriages and stronger families.  Along with more opportunity and inclusive growth.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.