Unemployment problem results from skills crisis, says Secretary of Education

The current unemployment problem is not just a jobs crisis, but a skills crisis, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

“I can’t tell you how many [companies] I’ve met with, and the President has met with, who have said, ‘We’re trying to hire right now, we’re not trying to export jobs and we can’t find the employees with the skills that we need’,” Duncan said.

Duncan was the keynote speaker at “From Classroom to Career: Investing in Tomorrow’s Workforce,” an event hosted by Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York. Corporate leaders in attendance heard from industry experts in education, government and business about how to better equip the next generation of American workers. During his talk, Duncan stressed the importance of providing opportunities for students to have mentorships, internships and job shadowing.

“If one of our students does something crazy, that’s the lead on the 9 o’clock news,” Duncan noted. Yet, if students work hard, there is not necessarily a reward, he added.

Businesses need to demand more, Duncan said, saying schools cannot equip students for the working world by themselves. For companies, Duncan added, this involvement is a combination of altruism — helping the next generation— and self-interest — ensuring they will have skilled employees in the future. He said most schools are not being pushed enough, moving too slowly instead of moving too quickly. Schools and businesses should challenge the status quo, according to Duncan.

“I think so many of our young people drop out not because school is too hard, but because it’s too easy,” Duncan said. “They’re not engaged, they’re not challenged.”

Duncan also gave a glimpse into the next four years if President Obama wins reelection, saying the administration will take “no left turns.” The Secretary said making sure America leads the world in college graduation rates would be a top priority, among other things. In order for that to be feasible, Duncan said college affordability would also be a focus. Obama’s push for increased graduation rates has met with some criticism in the past, with some analysts saying the President is giving too much attention to the wrong area.

To encourage a spirit of entrepreneurship among young people, Duncan recommended making sure they are financially literate and see themselves as agents of change. “At the end of the day, these are the kinds of opportunities that are the norm at successful private schools and they’re the exception at our inner city public schools,” he said. “The question for me is, how do we start to make these opportunities the norm?”