Ask an Economist: How Can Today’s College Students Future-Proof Their Careers?

Monday, September 12, 2016
The Atlantic

The Atlantic surveyed experts from a variety of backgrounds asking them which skills they’d focus on if they were about to start their first year of college this fall. William A. Darity, Jr., director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics at Duke University, shared his response below:

"I take issue with the framing of the question. The question presumes that college students individually can make choices that insulate them from the adverse effects of an economy rife with job insecurity. Of course, students could choose majors that offer better odds of low unemployment and higher pay, presumably in the STEM fields. But we would be a poorer society intellectually, culturally, and productively if everyone became an engineer or a physician. Plus the much larger numbers of STEM majors would create an overabundance of folks with those skills, thereby raising joblessness and lowering wages in those fields.

Furthermore, under existing conditions, the job security in STEM fields is strongly connected to race. Blacks with engineering degrees do not receive the same level of job security as whites with similar degrees. Between 2010 and 2012, black engineers had a 10 percent unemployment rate and a 32 percent underemployment rate.

True insurance against a fragile economic future will require policy changes at the national level, which could include a federal job guarantee that would ensure that all Americans, regardless of educational attainment, have access to employment opportunities and the strong enforcement of anti-discrimination measures. In addition, the risk of pursuing higher education could be reduced by dramatically lowering the cost of obtaining a college degree."

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