Today’s Education Crisis is Tomorrow’s Workforce Crisis
Our failure to keep our students learning during COVID means that employers will struggle to find, hire, and train the people they need in ten years. What to expect and what to do about it.
My nephew, along with most seven-year-olds in the US, finished first grade remotely last June. At social-distance family get-togethers, his mother introduced a new running joke to the adults: writing off typical seven-year-old behaviors as being “things they teach in the last 6 weeks of first grade.” Still eats with his elbows on the table? “Oh, they teach that at the end of first grade.”
We’re all scrambling for a good laugh in the COVID era, and this joke offered one. But underneath it all is a sad truth about education right now, which will become a terrifying truth about our labor force in 15 years: current grade schoolers are going to have holes in their education that will be no laughing matter when they enter the workforce. Today’s education crisis is tomorrow’s workforce crisis, one that we should be preparing for now.
Even as parents have reorganized their work lives and schools have hastened to get a remote learning program together, curricula have been slow to formalize and remote attendance has been spotty. In the best scenarios, families have adopted unschooling methods that promote learning but don’t stick to the prescribed topics in order to keep their children engaged and their parents sane. In the worst scenarios, youth with poor internet access and exhausted working parents don’t participate in any learning at all. This means that once education normalizes, every single child in each classroom will have their own knowledge base, much less related to the standard curriculum than is typically the case.
Maybe Kevin read his way to a sixth grade reading level, but skipped long division. Jameel did daily science projects with his dad, but hasn’t completed a single reading assignment, and Alejandra wrote several plays and turned one into a movie starring her little sisters, but the solar system module went right over her head. Titus, Luis, and Molly learned very little at all.
Because education is cumulative, each of these students will at some point fall behind in the courses where their learning doesn’t align with the expectations, and data suggests it will be hard to catch up. We are beginning to see this negative impact: Washington, DC recently found that students K — second grade have literacy rates 11 points below comparable students from one year ago (link).
This phenomenon can explain why forces majeures that led to closed schools have an outsized impact on learning. A recent paper from the Research on Improving Systems of Education Programme finds that when a 2005 earthquake shut down Northern Pakistan’s schools for three months, students in that area continued to be, on average, 1.5 years behind their peers educationally four years later, even though infrastructure and jobs returned quickly (link) (children whose mothers were educated did not experience this effect).
This is a particularly bad time for education to stall out. Even before COVID, there was a significant threat of automation substantially changing 60% of our jobs over the next generation (McKinsey). The most stable jobs — and the most promising workers — in the face of this threat are jobs which require critical thinking, are less rote and thus less automatable.
Learning critical thinking is complex and particularly difficult to do over distanced learning. It requires more interaction with teachers, and in some cases more literal space to experiment, make mistakes and learn from them. The type of environment that is most antithetical to critical thinking? Sitting in a dark room, in the same living space all day, looking at your teacher on a screen.
We should be bracing ourselves for 5–10 years from now, when current early grade-schoolers enter the workforce. They will be behind what their employers have come to expect in reading, math, science, and critical thinking. Job roles, onboarding programs, and benchmarked performance expectations may become inappropriate when a majority of new hires missed important pieces of their education due to COVID shutdowns.
I am reminded of the lamenting articles and blog posts that began showing up in the mid 2010s about how difficult millennials are as employees. Having grown up with smartphones and Amazon, we were told, millennials are impatient, used to getting whatever they want at the moment they desire it, be it entertainment, food, or clothing. They don’t want to put in the work to get the prestige and compensation of a longer-tenured, higher-performing employee, went the criticism.
Consider, in 2027, a similar spate of articles bemoaning the state of the new workforce entrants. They have a shorter attention span and tune out during training. They seem to take less initiative. They need to be told specifically what to do in various scenarios. Whereas before it took four weeks to get a new hire completely up to speed, now it takes five or six.
If every new hire takes an extra week to train, leading to one extra week operating below capacity, the effect will be devastatingly expensive on a national scale. Companies will lose billions of dollars every year taking longer to train their new employees.
Nobody wants to have this conversation, and especially not now. We are still in the throws of a pandemic that is getting worse daily, and the possibility of looking past the arrival of a vaccine and seeing further damage to our community as we know it is too painful to grasp. Nobody wants to have this conversation because beleaguered parents are giving 200% and then some meeting their professional responsibilities while acting as homemakers and teachers, and the possibility that their children will bear the brunt of this awful stretch of history, despite all they’ve done to avoid it, is a conversation with no upside during an already dark time.
Despite the unpleasantness of the facts, we must prepare now to support our businesses in offering additional onboarding and training support for their workforce 5 years down the line. Let’s increase support to businesses who want to invest in training their employees. A good place to start is to expand tax deductions for employee training.
But we can’t simply farm out the training of our workforce to our employers. After all, we allowed employers to take on health care as a benefit and we are still untangling the resulting web of hidden costs and incentives. We do not want our workforce to need to have a job in order to get the education they need to perform well in that job.
To avoid placing the responsibility of our undereducated youth onto employers, we should prepare to educate current grade schoolers until they’ve closed their education gap. If students are falling an estimated 18 months behind in their education during COVID shutdowns, we should have a plan in place for those students to attend grade school for an additional 18 months. This means that we must find the resources now to both accommodate larger class sizes, and provide financial support to young adults aged 19–21 who choose to continue studying and reach a standard high school education level.
Alternatively, we can avoid discussing this looming risk and hope that it will all, magically, resolve itself. And by the time our current eighth-graders are looking for a job, we can publish articles lamenting the depletion of capable workers.
Sara Nadel is the Cofounder and Chief Science Officer of StellarEmploy.