Computer literacy key to middle class jobs in California

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

(photo credit: Judy Baxter)

If you pull out your iPhone and ask Siri if a dog can jump over a house, chances are it’s just going to direct you to a kennel. So says a new paper from economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane entitled “Dancing with Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work.”

The general consensus has been that the rise of technology and globalization has hollowed out the middle class as the jobs they’ve historically relied upon increasingly employ computers over humans. But all is not lost. While computers have certainly taken the reins in some respects, Levy and Murnane both stress the fact that computers still don’t match up with humans when it comes to problem solving abilities, as shown by their iPhone example. Humans still come with abilities that computers, at least right now, can’t measure up against – but these skills need to be coaxed out of people by tweeking our education system.

“The most important skill is to learn how to learn efficiently,” Murnane said recently in a webinar on their paper presented by the Hewlett Foundation. “Very few of us are going to be able to earn a decent living doing the same thing decade after decade. The world of work is changing rapidly, and people are going to have to learn.”

Most importantly, people are going to need to learn a new kind of literacy. “Back in 1965 if you learned to read well enough to follow directions, there were a great many jobs in the U.S. that paid a reasonable wage,” Murnane said. “Those are the easiest kinds of jobs to compertize or to send to lower wage countries. Reading is still important, but the definitions for literacy have dramatically increased.”

Not only does literacy now include being able to read directions, says Murnane, but one must also be able to do a web search and be able to make sense of the millions of responses to a query.

Levy agrees. “In general, I think you see how the changes to computerized work places a greater emphasis on both mathematics and literacy,” he said. “to take one simple example, if you think about areas like auto mechanics, what computers have done is taken a process that used to be mechanical where you observe people doing the process and turned it into a computerized process. By taking a lot of formerly visible processes and making them electronic, you’re putting a greater emphasis on literacy.”

Murnane points to Common Core as one example of how we can prepare students for economic realities by leveling standards across the country and going farther in depth into subjects instead of cursory examinations. “The Common Core Statewide standards offer some opportunity to improve education,” he said. “The standards, the idea of asking schools to do fewer things but to do them better, and the idea that Algebra II ought to mean the same thing in Alabama as it does in Maine also makes sense.”

So how does California make good on Murnane and Levy’s suggestions? Career and technical education programs (CTE) may be the answer, they write. “For [some], learning is better done through career and technical education that provides more explicit links between foundational skills and groups of occupations…A variety of well designed secondary school options will be needed if America is to return to the position it held in the late 1960s as the member of the OECD with the highest high school graduation rate,” the paper says.

The authors have hit the nail on the head. To bring back the middle-class, one thing we absolutely have to do is provide the “career pathways” into high-growth jobs. One way is CTE. We have to rethink how we educate and train so that students are ready to take in-demand jobs that require problem-solving and high-tech skills, and that doesn’t just cover computer-related fields. It’s in the manufacturing of today.

The California Economic Summit’s Workforce Action Team will tackle addressing the skilled workforce needs of California by promoting the expansion of employer-driven education and training partnerships in high-growth regional industry clusters, particularly STEAM fields. By producing a skilled workforce to fill the skill-heavy jobs that exist and will be created in California, the middle class should see the revitalization it so desperately needs. 


Matthew Grant Anson

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