Educate better here, recruit overseas

One of the likelier negative alternatives for the 2025 California economy is that we will no longer be competitive in global technological leadership and be forced to downsize expectations about how many good-income jobs the state can generate. This ominous diagnosis is from the new study by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank established by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The projected numbers bluntly reveal that unless ongoing trends change dramatically, this state simply will be unable to attract and retain enough college-educated workers to meet the increasing needs of an economy that continues to need more highly skilled employees. By 2025, the expectation is that only 32 percent of California’s working-age adults will have a college degree. However, two of every five of the state’s potential 19.7 million jobs will require at least a college degree, up from one-third in 2005.

“Inevitably, if education levels in the state don’t catch up, the economy will adjust in one way or another,” concluded PPIC research director Deborah Reed, the economist who co-authored the study. The most obvious adjustment would be to reduce expectations of how much more California business could grow.

One contributing problem is that the state increasingly loses its own college graduates. Between 2000 and 2005, 612,000 college-educated migrants came to California from other states. But 658,000 college-educated California residents moved out — a net loss of 46,000. The PPIC blames the brain drain squarely on the high cost of housing here.

So far, real-world attempts to remedy this have largely consisted of high-minded political talk about upgrading California’s public colleges and encouraging more housing availability, while also actively recruiting college-educated workers from out-of-state and overseas.

The PPIC report’s bottom line is that improving both efforts will be necessary for a long time. But the greatest importance should be placed on implementing policies that “redouble efforts to raise college entrance and graduation rates” among our own residents.

Elevating Californians’ education levels has the greatest potential for closing the gulf between workers and jobs of the future, because as additional technology centers continue sprouting across America and the world, competition to recruit college graduates will only intensify.

“For either foreign or domestic migrants to fill California’s skills gap would require migration of unprecedented magnitude,” the report concluded. “That seems implausible, if not impossible.” During the last decade, the state’s net gains in skilled workers from other parts of the U.S. have slowed, and even gone backward. Meanwhile, although immigration from abroad has been impressively robust, it would need to more than double to meet future economic demand.

In other words, California either reconciles itself to dropping back into a second-rate economic power, or we finally get serious about fixing the state’s public education and building more housing.

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