Opinion: Where have all the young ones gone?

In our national dialogue, education reform has been reduced to recitations about “international economic competitiveness” poorly garnished with a myopic sprinkling of test scores. But two recent Vermont reports suggest we embrace a broader and more interactive view of society and education. One is the Vermont Roots Migration Project released last December comparing young people who stayed in the state with those who left. The second is the Department of Labor’s workforce projections.
The key findings of the Vermont Roots report:
•  People who earned advanced degrees (master’s and higher) tended to leave Vermont. A higher percentage of those with lower levels of education stayed.
•  Those who stayed tended to move to Chittenden County, and to a lesser degree, to Washington County. Such concentrations result in unequal opportunities and uneven economic conditions across the state. Chittenden’s virtuous cycle could be the Kingdom’s spiraling-in.
•  Unemployment is highest in Orleans and Essex counties and lowest in Chittenden and Addison counties — which parallel our regional out-migration.
•  Those who left the state were drawn by jobs, higher wages and more diverse communities.
•  Those who returned were drawn by family, landscape and Vermont community.
Now combine these findings with other trends:
•  Income disparity has grown. Vermont’s top 2 percent earned 7.5 percent of all income in 1991. This figure leaped to 24 percent of all income in 2007, according to the governor’s office.
•  Growth in wealth is concentrated in the top 10 percent while real wages have fallen in the past five years, confirms the Public Assets Institute.
•  There is good news in the overall number of jobs; we are bouncing back from the recession reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet, unemployment is highest among those 25 and younger. These are the ones who will be the entrepreneurs, economic drivers and the leaders of our rapidly changing communities.
•  The U.S. Census Bureau notes that we have a greater percentage of older citizens and a lesser percentage of young folks than the national averages. The school population has dropped 16 percent since the 1997 peak.
•  The graying of the state raises troubling questions of wealth distribution, capacity, economic vitality and social burden.
Although this is a highly interactive mix, poor education is often portrayed as the cause of society’s various maladies.  But, consider:
•  Vermont’s educational achievement is tied for sixth in math and seventh in science in the world.
•  Vermont consistently ranks in the top six in the nation in reading and math on national assessment measures.
•  Vermont ranks fifth in overall child well-being.
•  Of the various high school completion indices, Vermont consistently scores among the highest.
•  Vermont has a 17 technical centers providing skill training to 5,400 students.
With this high level of performance, we need to consider factors beyond education.
Business often complains about the inability to hire qualified people. The right question may be, “Why are our talented young people leaving the state?” When the top job openings in the state are (in order) personal care aides, cashiers, retail sales people, food workers and waiters; preparing a “21st-century workforce” is a call to generate a highly credentialed group of underemployed young adults often staggering under unmanageable student loans. The Vermont Department of Labor’s June 2015 long term projections show only 18 percent of jobs in 2022 will require a bachelor’s degree or higher. This raises difficult questions about the future of our children and our society.
To be sure, there are legitimate controversies over education spending, governance and declining enrollments. But it is the looming danger in the demographic and occupational trends that must worry us. If poverty becomes more concentrated, income disparities increase and the upward ladder doesn’t reach the second floor, education cannot overcome these structural deficits. If there are not enough challenging, well-paying and promising jobs for our young people, then our best and brightest will last see Vermont in their rear-view mirrors. 
Well-employed people are less likely to be a burden on society, or be involved in drugs and crimes. As the problem is interactive, one of the best long-term solutions to the achievement gap is broad access to good jobs. We should be driven to educational equality, workforce expansion and income fairness for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do. But if not for the nobler reasons, then we should do it for our own self-interest.
Education can and does provide well-prepared students. But economic and social well-being depends on other branches of government and the private sector cultivating the rich pool of talent, and matching the strength of their solutions to the magnitude of our challenges.
 William J. Mathis of Goshen is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a member of the Vermont State Board of Education. 

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