Myth: American graduates don't have the skills needed for a high-tech economy.

Fact: Americans are generally overqualified for the jobs available.


America's problem is not that it has too few educated workers, but that it has too many. Over 20 percent of all college graduates are either unemployed or hold jobs that do not require a college degree. Competition to get into graduate school has reached a fever pitch, and American universities produce 25 percent too many doctorates than the economy can use. At the college level, the U.S. is the most highly educated country in the world. At the primary and secondary level, the U.S. has a mixed record on education, but with a lower high-school dropout rate than most other nations. Unlike other countries, the U.S. does not have an extensive apprenticeship program to train workers who have no more than a high school education.


Many critics of American public education argue that too many students are graduating without the skills needed for a high-tech economy. Employers tell anecdotal horror stories about job applicants who cannot read or write or perform their jobs adequately. Fortunately, these criticisms describe the exceptions, not the rule. (1)

In fact, there is a glut of college graduates on the labor market. In 1993, one third of all 1991 and 1992 college graduates held jobs that did not require a college degree. (2) As for all college graduates, in 1990, 20 percent either held jobs that did not require a college degree or were unemployed. That was up from 18 percent in 1979 and 11 percent in 1968.

The glut is so serious that competition among college students to enter graduate school has reached a fever pitch. In 1996, for example, 46,968 students competed for 16,200 openings in medical schools across the country. (3) At law schools, 70,900 students applied for 43,000 openings. (4) Similar gluts exist in virtually all fields. Even the lucky few who graduate with doctorates find themselves competing for too few jobs that require their degrees. According to a 1995 study by Stanford University and the Rand Corporation, universities turn out "25 percent more doctorates in science and engineering than the U.S. economy can absorb." (5)

With too many overqualified workers at the top, a displacement effect runs down the entire job ladder. The best high school graduates who seek non-professional jobs find themselves competing with college graduates. These competent high school graduates are then bumped down, to compete for even lower jobs.

What this means is that the vast majority of American workers have more than enough fundamental education to perform their jobs. In 1989, a survey called "The Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce" questioned American employers on the education of their workers. The researchers found that over 80 percent of American employers were satisfied with the education of their newly hired employees. Only 5 percent expected that their employees would require further basic training or education.

International comparisons

And how does American education stack up against that of other nations? At the college level, the U.S. is the most highly educated society in the world. At the elementary and high school level, the U.S. has a mixed record.

Educational attainment of persons aged 25 to 64 years old, percent
by country, 1992 (6)

                Primary    Secondary  College
Country         Only       Also       Also
United States   16%        53         24
Netherlands     42         37         21
Canada          29         30         15
Denmark         41         40         13
Germany         18         60         12
Norway          21         54         12
Sweden          30         46         12
United Kingdom  32         49         11
Finland         39         43         10
France          48         36         10
Switzerland     19         60          8
Italy           72         22          6

Adding the figures in the first two columns shows how well each nation educates its non-college workforce. For example, the U.S. gives 69 percent of its society either an elementary or high school education, although in Italy it's 94 percent, France, 84 percent, etc. On the other hand, the U.S. also sees more of its students through high school than most other countries, which have unusually high dropout rates even in elementary school. So, on the whole, the U.S. produces more highly educated workers than any other nation.

Meeting the requirements of the workplace

Another criticism is that the public education system isn't teaching students the skills that will be required in our rapidly changing high-tech economy. Apple Computer Chairman John Sculley once complained to President Clinton that "We're still trapped in a K-12 public education system which is preparing our young people for jobs that just don't exist anymore."

But this criticism doesn't hold water. With relatively minor spending increases, educators have been able to add enough computers to elementary school classrooms that 54 percent of all students now use them. At present, this is an even greater percentage than those who use computers on the job.

The U.S. does, however, fail to train its future workers in a way that most other prosperous nations do not. Other nations have extensive apprenticeship programs for workers who do not go on to college. The success of these publicly funded programs is considerable, and many foreign entrepreneurs have scratched their heads over why the U.S. has not adopted them.

The problem is this: lower education is general education, teaching the fundamentals that are universally needed by all citizens, regardless of their future jobs. But at the higher levels, education becomes increasingly specialized. In the U.S., true specialization in a particular job field does not really occur until college. Yet, roughly four-fifths of all Americans do not attend college, even though they will be choosing job specialties as well, and have just as much need for specialized training. Other nations solve this problem through apprenticeship programs. By contrast, blue-collar workers in the U.S. must struggle through on-the-job training.

On-the-job training has many serious drawbacks. First, simply knowing a job is insufficient for a manager to train someone else in it. Training and educating others efficiently, easily and completely is a high skill, one that the majority of managers fail to master. Not surprisingly, most do it poorly. The advantages of a formal apprenticeship program is that it can be designed and taught by experts.

Second, on-the-job training works well for simple jobs, but in an increasingly high-tech world, it may become too lengthy and expensive for companies to accept. In that case, businessmen and educators often engage in a lot of finger-pointing, trying to blame each other for the workers' lack of skills. Educators blame businessmen for not supporting apprenticeship programs, and businessmen blame educators for inadequate primary and secondary education. The latter charge is fallacious, however, because elementary and high school are for general education, not specialized education.

Many companies are learning the value of privately funded apprenticeship programs. Here is a success story reported in The American Prospect:

Apprenticeship programs are clearly successful, but one of the controversies involved with them is who should pay for them. Some argue that businesses should pay for them, since they are the ones who benefit from them. (In economic terms, this is called "internalizing the externality.") Others argue that government should pay for them, as a public investment in the success of our economy. (This already describes our public education system, from kindergarten through college.) There are good arguments on both sides of this debate. But the key point here is that it is illogical to blame elementary and high school educators for failing to teach workers specialized skills, since that is not their function. The real problem is the absence of a apprenticeship program.

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1. Unless otherwise indicated, all facts and quotes in this essay come from Richard Rothstein, "The Myth of Public School Failure," The American Prospect no. 13, Spring, 1993.

2. Michigan State University's Collegiate Employment Research Institute, 1993.

3. Aric Press, "The Road to Graduate School," Newsweek, How to Get Into Graduate School, 1998 edition, p. 6.

4. David Kaplan, "Do You Want to be a Lawyer?" Newsweek, How to Get Into Graduate School, 1998 edition, p. 20.

5. Leslie Kaufman, "When a B.A. is not enough," Newsweek, How to Get Into Graduate School, 1998 edition, p. 64.

6. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Paris, France, Education at a Glance, 1992.

7. Quoted in Rothstein.