Writer Debunks The 'Great Education Myth'

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For years, it has been a common belief that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education are the subjects that hold the key to fostering a healthy economy. But recent studies show STEM field students may not fare any better in strengthening the economy than students from any other discipline. Host Michel Martin speaks with author and syndicated columnist David Sirota and Tell Me More finance expert Alvin Hall for analysis.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Throughout the month of September, TELL ME MORE has been telling you more about issues in education. Later in the program, we are going to talk about international students.

For decades, the U.S. has been a destination for international students. We'll ask, is that still so? And is the welcome mat still at the door? We'll find out more in just a few minutes.

But today, we want to talk about whether college, specifically educating yourself in the so-called STEM fields science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the premier subjects that hold the key to fostering a healthy economy.

Just yesterday, the White House announced the goal of recruiting 10,000 new STEM teachers over the next decade, all with the hopes of strengthening, quote, "America's future prosperity."

But recent findings, including a study by the University of Essex, finds no correlation between the number of individuals studying STEM subjects and economic growth rates of individual countries.

We wanted to dig into this, so we called columnist David Sirota. He's a columnist and an author and a talk show host, and he's actually written about this topic. And I'm also joined by our money coach and TELL ME MORE's resident expert on personal finance and the economy, Alvin Hall. Welcome to the both. Thank you for joining us.

ALVIN HALL: Thank you.

Mr. DAVID SIROTA (Columnist; Host, "The David Sirota Show"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Now David, you recently wrote a piece called "The Neoliberal Bait and Switch." You call it the great education myth. What's the myth?

Mr. SIROTA: The myth is from both parties that you can have a trade and economic policy that effectively incentivizes the offshoring of jobs in America. And the way to combat that, the downside of that, is to make your education system better, that your education system can be your primary instrument of job growth in a country.

And it's a myth because what we know is that if you do not have the economic policies in place to incentivize investment in job growth in the United States, no matter how well your education system does, no matter how many Ph.D.s or STEM specialists it produces, there won't be enough jobs to employ the people that education system produces.

And we know this because we know from studies that we are already, our education system, as flawed as it is, is already producing more STEM graduates than the job market itself can support.

MARTIN: But there is no doubt, though, that college graduates fare better in the labor market than non-college graduates.

Mr. SIROTA: That's certainly true, but the point here is that if we're talking about an instrument of job creation, that there are limits on how much of an engine your education system can be if you don't have policies in place from your government that incentivize investing at home rather than investing abroad.

If you have policies in place that create tax advantages for a company to move its jobs overseas, if you have a trade policy that encourages the same thing, if you have a corporate subsidy policy that encourages that, then you could end up having a nation of Ph.D.s with not very many well-paying jobs.

MARTIN: But if that were true, why isn't that true now?

Mr. SIROTA: Well because the economic policies, I think, that incentivize offshoring take some time to implement.

MARTIN: Alvin, what's your take on David Sirota's argument?

HALL: I like part of it, but some of it I question a little bit. I think that the part of his argument that I really embrace is the fact that government is really encouraging everything to act like a business to look where they can get the lowest possible cost for everything and make the maximum possible profits for the few. And therefore, it really does eventually lead to more and more people being laid off, whether they are educated or not.

The part of his argument that I sort of question is about the role of education. I agree with him that education does not create jobs, but what it does, it does open up individuals to the possibility of creating businesses that create jobs.

MARTIN: David, what is your goal in sparking this conversation? I have to say, you're not the only person to write about the fact that, first of all, higher education in general, the cost of it has far outstripped the rate of inflation over the last, what, two decades.

So number one, college education in general is becoming extremely expensive and burdensome for the middle class to afford, and so that's becoming kind of its own issue.

And secondly, of course, this whole question: Are kids studying what they really need to function in today's economy? And I think, in part, what you're saying is that's all hooey, none of that's really the issue.

Mr. SIROTA: Well, that's right. I mean, look, I see our education system as important to all sorts of things, but not necessarily as the primary tool of job growth.

What I worry about, the reason I wrote this column, was because I think we are missing an opportunity right now, in a time of the great recession, when we need to be having serious conversations about how to really spur job growth in this country.

Too many politicians are insisting that the best way to do that is to improve our education system because they don't want to have a conversation about the underlying economic policies that, frankly, large corporations have pushed and have created, really, the problem that we face in our job market.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guests are columnist David Sirota and our money coach, Alvin Hall, and we're talking about a column that David recently wrote called "The Neoliberal Bait and Switch," where he argues that this focus on higher education, specifically trying to promote education in the so-called STEM fields, really masks sort of underlying problems in the American economy. So David, what's your better idea?

Mr. SIROTA: Well, I think obviously, you need to improve your education system. I think you need to make sure that it is being funded adequately.

But I think what you also need to do is have a conversation about a trade policy that has zero tariffs and that therefore incentivizes offshoring of jobs to other countries, a trade policy that has no environmental or wage standards so that it says to companies, listen, you can move offshore, exploit poverty-level wages and circumvent environmental regulations in countries that don't have them.

If you don't have those conversations in tandem, you can't fix the problem. But the flip side is I think if you do have those conversations in tandem, you can start addressing the long-term issues.

MARTIN: But the go ahead, Alvin.

HALL: Right. You look at who creates jobs in this country. It's a lot of people who are very creative thinkers, who may not have those degrees, who see business opportunities from different points of view. They are well-educated and have an elasticity to their education.

But this liberal argument, which David is talking about in his article, argues that you have to have this vocational training. You have to go down this road. And in that, you will gain some degree to create businesses. I don't think it's true.

MARTIN: But do you disagree? Do you both disagree with the notion that there is, in fact, a skills gap, that there are in fact jobs available in this country, that there are other people in this country who simply cannot fill them? You both just don't buy that?

Mr. SIROTA: I fundamentally disagree with that, and what I would say is you can provide individual examples of that, but the mass data about the positions that are open versus the American workforce just doesn't bear out that theory.

When I hear a corporate leader say that, oh, you know, we can't find properly trained high-tech workers in the economy, what I hear really is we can't find them at the low wages we want to pay them. That's what this is about.

HALL: I totally agree with that. And I think that once people get that mindset, they don't even want to give a worker who may have all the fundamental skills, who in six months could be doing that job just as well as somebody else, but they will not give them that opportunity.

MARTIN: So are you both saying that we should ignore issues like low graduation rates, specifically at certain populations, that we should ignore sort of the achievement gap with our peer-economy countries or the accomplishments of the do you know what I mean? Are you saying we should ignore all that data? What are you saying?

HALL: No, no.

Mr. SIROTA: If and where we have achievement gaps, we need to address that as a problem unto itself. But it is not primarily a job creation problem. It's not going to primarily impact job creation. It impacts a lot of other things.

If we're going to have a separate conversation about the recession, about the job market, we need to go beyond simply saying, well, it's just the school's problem. No, it's not just the school's problem.

MARTIN: So Alvin, final thought from you. Do you have any sense that David's point of view has any currency at all right now on the circles in which you run? Do you see any discussion about this, whether these are really two separate conversations?

HALL: Yes, I do see these discussions in the financial markets. People are looking for analysts. They're looking for technology people, people who can write programs, who can develop a new, faster, better trading systems.

And in general, you don't see them hiring a lot of Americans. They are hiring engineers from overseas, who come over here and get the jobs because they complain that Americans don't have the skill sets.

Most of them want somebody who can hit the ground running immediately rather than investing a little money in them. And an American may come with higher salary expectations.

I think that David is partially right, though, that there are people out there. Americans just need to give them time to learn a bit more.

MARTIN: Alvin Hall is our regular contributor on matters of personal finance and the economy. He joined us from our bureau in New York. David Sirota is the author of the bestselling books "Hostile Takeover" and "The Uprising." He also hosts the "The David Sirota Show" on AM-760 in Colorado, and he was with us now from Denver. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SIROTA: Thank you.

Mr. HALL: You're welcome.

MARTIN: If you want to read David's column so you'll know what we're talking about, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

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