F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, wrote in an essay in 1936, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I do not think the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession are “opposed ideas,” but the challenge of addressing two crises at the same time can overload our circuits. The immediate can be the enemy of the strategic. We need to be able to reflect and reason in the face of ambiguity. Drawing conclusions should follow, not precede, discussion of the issue at hand.
That is where Wisconsin finds itself today. The rapid development of immunizations for COVID-19 gives us hope for a less stressful time and for stability. Even while we breathe a sigh of relief—and even more important, express our gratitude for the prospect of greater safety and health—we still face a mammoth challenge; a deep recession and wide-spread unemployment and economic insecurity for families and employers.
Although the recession is in many ways the result of the pandemic, the challenge to our economy has origins long before the pandemic. The signs have long been there, and new evidence piles up every day. For millennia, the economy was based on what we could extract from the earth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the industrial revolution transformed the economy into one based on manufacturing; that is, on what we make. Now we are in the Knowledge Economy. The Knowledge Economy is not just the high-tech sector. The Knowledge Economy encompasses agriculture and manufacturing.
Technology has broadened the opportunities to create and to be entrepreneurial. Brilliant ideas developed in a garage become corporate giants.
Twelve years ago, in the “great” recession, 7.2 million jobs were lost. 5.6 million of those were jobs requiring only a high school diploma or less. Before the onset of the pandemic, the economy was moving in the direction of growth, but there has been virtually no growth in well-paying jobs with benefits for those with a high school diploma or less. Moreover, 99 percent of the new jobs created since the great recession required at least some college. Employers, policymakers, and education need to confront this challenge together.
This challenge should not be a surprise. The birthrate has been declining, retirements skyrocketing, and low-income and communities of color frequently do not have resources to achieve the level of education which can be the key to a brighter future.
My recommendations: First, the government and employers need to invest more in means-tested student aid. The state’s principal student aid program for students at UW; a technical college; or a private, nonprofit college or university is called “Wisconsin Grants.” Wisconsin Grants empower students to pursue the kind of educational and career path that works for them. A means test also assures taxpayers and employers that their support is not subsidizing those who can obtain education without financial help.
Second, we need to focus on the “big picture” proposals. To lure students from one Wisconsin college to another leaves the state with no net gain.
Third, remember that career opportunities are critically important, but a college worthy of the name also transmits values which I call the “five Cs”: critical reasoning, creative thinking, communicating, collaborating, and character.
The workforce crisis has been brewing before the pandemic and shows every sign of enduring beyond the pandemic. It has been said that a crisis should not be wasted. Looking beyond the current crisis, let’s get it right.
Rolf Wegenke, Ph.D.