High School Reform and Work: Facing Labor Market Realities

Liam Julian

Paul E. Barton
Educational Testing Service
June 2006

A few weeks ago, we reviewed an ACT study that purported to find that high school graduates need the same skills for work as they do for college. Paul Barton agrees—if you’re talking about relatively high-level work. But what about entry-level jobs? In this report, Barton combs through reams of data and finds no support for the claim that those headed directly from high school to lowly posts in the workplace need to be qualified for college-level courses. For example, he cites a 2001 survey by the National Association of Manufacturers about why companies reject applicants for hourly production jobs. Sixty-nine percent of employers cited “inadequate basic employability skills (attendance, timeliness, work ethic, etc.),” while just 32 percent noted “inadequate reading/writing skills,” 21 percent pointed to “inadequate math skills,” and 8 percent referred to “lack of degree or vocational training.” But this report is no rebuke to the ideas of the American Diploma Project (ADP) or to the ACT study cited above. While the lowest-paying hourly jobs may not demand stringent academic preparation, higher-paying jobs that may not require a college diploma do call for college-level skills. Since the 1970s, the average educational level in any given occupation has risen, and it continues to rise. Barton acknowledges that more and more, “middle class” wage jobs are the province of those with college degrees or whose academic skills are good enough to allow them college entrance. So while employers may look first at non-academic characteristics when hiring for low-paid hourly jobs, the data show that decent-paying work requires at least a college-entrance level grasp of core subjects. Unless our high schools are satisfied churning out hoards who will work minimum wage jobs for 40+ years, they should embrace the ADP vision. Read Barton’s report here.