Happy Labor Day, sort of

unionsThe rules have changed.

I worked my way through college (literally–from sophomore year on I lived in my own apartment and supported myself). But I went to a free college (they existed in NYC back then) and jobs were plentiful. I had all kinds of jobs–bartender, office worker, “Young Poets in the Schools” administrator, waitress, art studio assistant, and so on.

The moment I had my degree (in political science), I was hired by the NYC Welfare Department (that’s what it was called back then) as a caseworker. They were desperate–anyone with a college degree was eligible for a job with them. I was 20 years old and I had several hundred people in my caseload. No wonder the average length of time caseworkers lasted was less than a year (I was no exception).

But a college degree was pretty much golden. If you could wave that piece of paper, and you knew how to type, talk, and write, jobs were easy to find.

There was a push against becoming a “company man” or winding up in a factory for the rest of one’s life. In retrospect, that attitude spread across my generation because our economy was booming, and student loans were modest. We had the luxury of being picky or bouncing from job to job. Until I started at the radio station in 1980, I had never stayed at a job longer than a year or two–and I was never fired.

At the same, labor unions were a powerful force in our economy and political life. While unions are still effective in some industries, the numbers have dwindled and even so-called “blue collar” workers have drifted away from unions. But today is Labor Day, and you can thank organized labor for the holiday.

The labor landscape looks very different today than it did in the first two or three decades after WW II.

For example, if you’re a recent college graduate, odds are you have hefty college loans to pay back. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem if you can find a good job with that degree.

Problem is the debt is disproportionate to earning power. From  a recent article at 24/7 Wall St  exploring this problem:

More than two-thirds of 2011’s college graduates had student debt. Those students, according to the Project on Student Debt, had an average of more than $25,000 in back loans. To make matters worse for many recent graduates, college graduates have a smaller chance of finding a job than they once did.

For some, the jobs they get with their degree pay so little that it can take years for them just to pay off their loans. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data to find jobs that require a bachelor’s degree to be competitive, yet pay less than the median annual wage of $34,750. For example, legislators — elected government officials — earn a median of less than $20,000 annually even though most have bachelor’s degrees. These are the seven highly educated jobs making the least money.

unions2By the way, radio and television announcers are on that list of seven.

When my mother was growing up, a high school diploma was the goal. When she was orphaned as a 15 year old, she went to work, lived with a sister and both attended night high school. Night high school classes were common in NYC prior to World War II. Generally, these classes were the upward mobility pathway for immigrants and those from poorer families–for people who had to work as teenagers or twenty-year-olds and couldn’t afford to go to school during the day.

In another article from 24/7 Wall St, a consideration of some of the best paying and most popular jobs in our economy today. If all you have is a high school diploma, working your way up the ladder may land you a six-figure job…eventually. Otherwise, a college degree, in spite of loans, will probably lead to more choices and better pay.

If you’re interested in occupational employment statistics, the place to go is the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is where you’ll find “…employment and wage estimates annually for over 800 occupations. These estimates are available for the nation as a whole, for individual States, and for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas; national occupational estimates for specific industries are also available.”

For those who can afford it–and have the intellectual talent–advanced degrees still provide the most professional promise.

Here are some questions that keep coming up when we talk about education and employment in our 21st century economy:

1. Is college worth the cost?

2. Should everyone who wants to go to college (regardless of talent or capacity) be able to do so?

3. Should there be more training tracks for those who don’t attend college?

4. Where do the liberal arts fit into the college of the future?

And, what are the other issues facing young people joining our workforce in today’s economy?

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One Response to “Happy Labor Day, sort of”

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  1. Mark, Saranac Lake says:

    I think back to my college days and am grateful to have gotten my degrees when I did (associates degree in the mid 70s and bachelor’s degree in the early 80s) It truly was affordable then (I attended SUNY schools)

    What caught my attention is what is printed on the “Imagine…No Unions!” poster pictured here…”imagine a job without weekends, 40 hour work week,…”. Much of what is on this poster is less available than it was a few short years ago. Many of the larger corporations have found they can circumvent those benefits by going outside of the US for getting their products made. That, in turn, has had an impact on this county’s work force with lower average middle class salaries and the removal of many of those benefits here in the US, not to mention the actual loss of jobs.

    I hear much criticism of unions today, but there are fewer unionized workers now and annual salaries are down (except for the very top end, which is way up) Companies like Wal-Mart go to great lengths to keep unions out of their workforce and there has been an effort more recently on the part of fast food workers to unionize, or at least get a better hourly wage – it remains to be seen if that work scenario will improve, but, without unions, it is unlikely that it will. Many of those working in these relatively low paying and low benefit jobs are the primary bread winners in their respective families, not as much the entry level or high-school jobs they used to be. Much has changed in the US labor force over the past 30 years, and much of it is not for the better.

    It’s an appropriate title for what Labor Day celebrates today…”Happy Labor Day…sort of”.