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Can the South break out of the low-skill trap?

Educational attainment is improving in the South, but many parts of the 16-state (plus Washington, D.C.) region are caught in a vicious cycle that ensures they will lag behind the nation in creating high-paying jobs and producing workers who can fill them.

That finding stands out in a report released Tuesday (July 31) by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. The study is titled "A Decade Behind: Breaking Out of the Low-Skill Trap in the Southern Economy."

Education demand is improving in the South, but is still a decade behind national averages, according to the report, which The New Tri-State Defender got an advanced review of last week (July 27) during Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku's participation in a New America Media education fellowship in Washington.

By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education and training, researchers concluded, noting that only three areas of the study region will meet or beat the national percentage: Washington, D.C. (76 percent); Virginia (68 percent) and Maryland (66 percent). The remaining 14 states are projected to fall below that level, and some substantially below.

"Today, some 59 percent of all jobs nationally require postsecondary education and training, compared to 54 percent for the South. By 2020, 59 percent of jobs for the South will require postsecondary education and training – the same percentage that the nation as a whole reached in 2010," the study finds.

"In other words, the South is 10 years behind in terms of educational attainment."

The study paints a picture of what is termed a "low-wage/low-skill equilibrium," emphasizing that the so-called phenomenon is not unique to the southern states. The condition occurs when supply and demand for skilled workers balance at the lower end of the pay and educational achievement scale. At such points, educators and employers become dependent on an economic and technological pathway that suppresses wages and discourages human capital development, the study finds.

"Industry has no incentive to locate in those states, employers have no incentive to create jobs that require anything but low skill and pay, and workers have no reason to attain much beyond a minimum education," according to the researchers.

"This, of course, is no way to compete in a global economy that increasingly emphasizes competition based on knowledge and skill. And yet, it is the situation confronting much of the South."

Breaking out of a low-skill equilibrium is no small feat. States, however, can escape the quandary by producing "more workers with postsecondary education and training; modernizing existing industries; and attracting new ones," the study asserts.

The number of jobs in the South actually is projected to grow by 20 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared to 17 percent for the nation as a whole, the report notes. The issue, said researchers, is "what kinds of jobs will be created; they will be lower-skilled, lower-pay positions that follow the industrial profiles of the various states."

The report comes as Tennessee wrestles with what Gov. Bill Haslam has termed a problem shared with other states: jobs are available, but there are not enough qualified graduates. Haslam has publicly wondered whether Tennessee's colleges are preparing future workers.

A solution-oriented step, according to Haslam, would be a statewide conversation. A recent workforce development mini-summit, the first of more to come, was designed with that in mind.

Meanwhile, the South, according to the researchers of the new report, has much work to do if it is to catch up to the country in providing opportunity for its residents.

"And there can be little doubt that education will be one of its most critical tools going forward," the report finds.

"Without it, there is little hope of the South ever escaping its low-skill trap."

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