Monday, February 7, 2011

A Lesson from Tunisia

While the world watches Egypt morph into a post-Mubarak regime, the country that started it all remains almost forgotten a month later. Tunisia is an interesting study for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tunisia had economically developed well under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ranking 81st out of 169 according to the United Nations Development Program human development index measurement.

Unemployment is running 13-14% compared to the US 9.8% (Jan 2011) doesn’t seem that high. So what got everybody steamed at Ben Ali?

Tunisia produces more college graduates than jobs. The unemployment rate is much higher in Tunisia amongst college graduates, especially those under 25.

According to the blog “Teaching College English”, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 university graduates enter the job market every year. Fifty-seven percent of young Tunisians entering the labor market are college educated.

Unfortunately Ben Ali could not keep his promise to create 300,000 new jobs for all of the college graduates. Furthermore, Ben Ali did not make it possible for Tunisians to easily emigrate. It may have prevented brain drain but it left a highly educated population of disenfranchised young people without jobs.

NPR ran a piece this morning where a young Tunisian woman with a graduate degree was lamenting the only work she could find was at a call center. Several of her relatives, also with graduate degrees, have been without work for months.

The case in Tunisia makes me wonder what the future holds for the United States. We continue to puke out thousands and thousands of graduates from our colleges and universities every year. Yet do we have the capacity to employ these well-educated young people?

Unlike Tunisia, our graduates can emigrate to find work. Many college graduates find work in fields unrelated to their degrees, often doing work that doesn’t require an advanced degree.

I’ve pondered on this blog before about the need to revamp our secondary education system to where people are able to find work upon graduation, at something higher than minimum wage.

Let’s look at a typical four-degree. The average cost for a public four-year college is probably about $50,000. In comparison, a private four-year college may cost $80,000 to $120,000. Much of the courses they will take will have little to nothing to do with their job (quick, how many of you got jobs because you knew the difference between Descartes and Hobbes?).

Most of these graduates will go to work already in debt from student loans. They will require salaries that will allow them to start paying their debts off. At the same time they will have to try to pay for a place to live, a car, food, and a family if they have one. The costs associated with attracting these pricey entry-level workers are passed on to the customer or client.

In comparison, those with only a high school diploma may only be able to find a minimum wage job. Even though they have no debt, and hence require less financial incentives employers, they will face little to no chance for upward mobility. Minimum wage jobs will not allow people to pay for the cost of raising a family.

Most high school graduates who do not intend to go to college do well by going to a career center and earning some type of certification. It allows them to earn more than minimum wage and in the case of technical fields (such as machinist), they will eventually out earn their baccalaureate colleagues.

President Obama has been pushing job creation but none of his plans talk about how he intends to use the surplus of college graduates. Governor Kasich is also all about putting Ohioans to work but so far he has not addressed the gap between a college educated population and lack of jobs to employ them. Note: Ohio has the fifth highest total number of colleges and post-secondary schools in the United States with 336 (as of 2005).

Unless Ohio and the United States figures out a way to start using all of this college educated workers, we may face our own version of Tunisia.

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