Education and the economy in Massachusetts

We ask of a lot of the schools — from providing a foundation for democracy to building good health habits and supporting the personal development aspirations of our children. 

Presently the urgent asks to our schools are to assure our competitiveness in two very different respects — our overall economy should be healthy and nobody should be left behind.  What is the role of education in achieving these goals?  Towards the end of understanding that question, this page collects links on current challenges to our economy.

The economic challenges that we face in Massachusetts have their uniqueness, but we have lot in common with the rest of the country

  • falling incomes among the poorest families
  • increased hours of work for middle-class families, just to stay in place
  • loss of manufacturing jobs to international competition
  • shift to services jobs, especially education and health care
  • competitive pressure even on many higher-skilled service jobs
  • rising income and wealth inequality, as a minority of the best-educated workers thrive

See generally, The State of Working America.  It is worth noting that the larger fundamental pressures also apply to the major European democracies, many of whom are losing both manufacturing and service jobs to Asia and automation, just as we are.

Current studies of the job market in Massachusetts include the UMass project on the future of work, especially Chapter 1,MassInc’s recent jobs study, or Northeastern Center for Labor Market Studies.  Some of the ideas coming out of these studies include the following:

  • Good manufacturing jobs are becoming scarcer and scarcer in Massachusetts due to both automation and international competition, and to the extent vanishing manufacturing jobs have been replaced at all, they have been replaced by lower paying service jobs that offer limited upward mobility.  
  • To the extent manufacturing endures in Massachusetts, it requires higher skills than before. Manufacturing operations are more highly automated and flexible.  There are fewer jobs that require merely brawn and/or repetitive diligence.  Operators need to be able to work with computers and function effectively as part of a team.  The number of openings in this kind of new manufacturing are relatively few, but surprisingly go begging.   Massachusetts citizens with the necessary skills are not drawn to manufacturing and many of the jobs go to industrious immigrants.  Manufacturers perceive the citizens in the applicant pool as lacking basic skills and unwilling to engage in flexible team work. 
  • Contrary to the hopes of some, the biotech sector is unlikely to make up the losses.  It will mostly generate high-end scientific, technical and engineering jobs inaccessible to most; in addition, it may generate a few middle-skill manufacturing jobs.
  • The shift towards a “niche”  or “boutique” economy means that a few people have relatively high-paying, high-skill jobs with a career path and that a great many people will work harder for less.
  • Service work is experiencing many of the same pressures as manufacturing work.  There is visible off-shoring of service work.  But there is also a steady progressive automation of routine work requiring diligence and attention.  This is less visible, but many office jobs have down-skilled dramatically, while others have up-skilled.
  • The dominant realities underlying these trends are Asia and automation. 
  • The divergence of skill levels in the job market has resulted in rising income inequality.  This is happening across the country, but especially in Massachusetts and it is a long term trend.  While the rich get richer, the poor in Massachusetts are getting poorer not only in relative terms, but also (by some measures) in absolute terms.  For statistics on income inequality, see MassInc’s report or MassBudget’s report on this subject; the latter report includes the impact of taxes and income assistance, while the former uses pre-tax income information.  For a longer national perspective see the Census report on the subject.
  • Standards of living may not dramatically deteriorate since inflation has been held down by cheaper imports, but the majority of people may experience a sense of insecurity and stagnation.
  • Massachusetts still has much lower poverty rates than most states (see 2006 American Community Survey, figure 8).  Poverty is highest in the south central states, where in some counties, over 1 in 3 live in poverty.  And Massachusetts has the fifth highest median household income in the country, stunningly high in international perspective.  But these relative statistics are of no comfort to the many families in Massachusetts whose incomes are stagnating at relatively low levels or even falling further.

There are no magic bullets.  Public policy has to seek to help those hardest hit — to assure that incomes are protected for the most vulnerable.  And we need to judiciously pursue a portfolio of policies to support inclusive economic development.  Things that are commonly viewed as part of that portfolio include:

  • Science and technology education
  • Education that supports other aspects of employability — team work skills, work habits
  • Minimum wage
  • Energy cost control (including conservation)
  • Development of more affordable housing
  • Investment in research infrastructure and technology transfer
  • Support for promising industries (new and established) — clean energy, green jobs, biotech, tourism, education . . .
  • Foreign trade missions
  • Targeted infrastructure investments
  • Tax incentives; assuring cost-effectiveness of government
  • Positive responses from government to business and individuals considering location in Massachusetts
  • Streamlining of permitting — although this should not mean disregard for environmental considerations

Most in political leadership in Massachusetts recognize the health and inclusive breadth of the economy as central challenges, although there is no consensus on just what the right mix of policies is, or even, for that matter, what the most important education related policies are.  There is no clear mapping of educational goals to realistic economic goals — it is unclear, for example, whether closing the achievement gap will actually lead to lower joblessness.  It may be that good basic education creates a middle skill level and that middle skilled jobs are disappearing in our economy.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.