Stark evidence of the value of education for Atlanta workers


For Atlantans without a degree, good jobs are hard to get and just as hard to keep.

The new research out of the Brookings Institution may surprise no one, especially those struggling to make ends meet in a dead-end job, yet the information clarifies the stark challenge facing local and state leaders.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber hosted a pair of Brookings researchers at a forum in mid-August that was intended to inform, and galvanize, business executives and advocacy groups.

Martha Ross, a fellow at the institution, flashed a chart from a projector that showed employment rates of 29-year-olds based on education level, then stated what all present could see: “The degrees were the most powerful predictor.”

She added some other dismal but predictable information, based on economic studies around the country: Low earnings in one’s early 20s predict lower income later in life, as do spells of unemployment in one’s 20s — sobering, if not surprising, news for the generation that came of age during the Great Recession. Also, convicts and women tend to earn less, she said.

Ross’ colleague, Chad Shearer, had more sad statistics: Lower-income people are seeing less wage growth than more fortunate citizens, and they’re less likely to win a good job, which he defined based on pay, stability and benefits. Fewer than half of metro Atlanta’s jobs meet his standard.

And what defines the lucky half?

“Education is a key determinant of whether somebody is going to be able to get a good job,” Shearer said, piling on to what Ross had said: Even with a degree, women and minorities, generally speaking, fare worse.

Bem Joiner, a man in the audience, stood during the question-and-answer part of the event, and pointed to an underlying issue: “a lack of cultural understanding.” It was a nice way of saying racial bias.

Young job seekers must “code switch” to have a chance in a job interview, said Joiner, who is black. “The numbers seem kind of off in this city that is the home of Dr. King.” What can be done, he wanted to know.

Shearer, the numbers guy, had a response: “civic players” must play matchmaker between businesses and job seekers. He used the phrase “boots on the ground.”

A woman on a follow-up panel continued that conversation. Networking is key, said Lindsey Craft-Goins, a Microsoft employee who encourages schools to adopt technology. The career-minded need to take the initiative, and the civic players who are helping them need to ensure they show up at the right events and meet the right people. “We speak to people in front of us,” she said.

As if to underscore that point, the Chamber invited a young man who seemed an exception to the bar chart data presented earlier.

Macio Thompkins is an inspector with Atlanta’s Watershed Management Department. He came from what he described as a hardscrabble youth, and saw the people of his childhood walking paths he didn’t want to follow.

“I really felt in my heart that I was going to wind up in prison or dead,” said Thompkins, 25.

He landed a job as a city sanitation worker, which might not seem a lucky stroke. Yet it led to connections and, eventually, because he was ambitious and courted advice, a transfer to his current job. It has a better career arc than trash collection. “I wouldn’t be here today without my mentor,” he said. “That’s just the bottom line.”

He got an applause.

The audience was hungry for an uplifting story after all that bleak Brookings data.

Ross and Shearer had some promising news to deliver, though.

Leaders can help improve the outlook, but it would have to involve a concerted and coordinated effort by industry and by educators, from kindergarten through college: stronger career and technical education training with a heavy dose of mentoring; more support for at-risk students who make it to college, with better a deal on financial aid and better guidance; and “on ramps” to jobs, such as internships and more job-specific training.

It sounds like a lot of expensive, hard work.

In the meantime, although the cards are stacked against people on the low end of the education ladder, they can maximize their chances with the right choices early in life. Choosing an entry-level job in the right sector can lead to opportunities later, especially after some training and job-hopping with the sector, Shearer said. In metro Atlanta, construction, logistics, manufacturing and government account for half the good jobs, so that’s not a bad place to start.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Education

Opinion: I’m not a distraction, far from it. Stop treating me as one.
Opinion: I’m not a distraction, far from it. Stop treating me as one.

A senior at Etowah High School wrote an essay about the message school dress codes deliver to young women.  Regular readers know I share Cherokee County student Madison Jones’ concerns over dress codes and the misplaced focus on how the behavior and appearance of girls impacts boys and their education. Most recently, I wrote about a...
Savannah State planning cuts as tuition and revenue declines
Savannah State planning cuts as tuition and revenue declines

Savannah State University administrators are considering budget cuts to deal with recent enrollment and revenue declines. University President Cheryl Dozier said in a recent letter to faculty and staff that enrollment has declined two consecutive years, which has resulted in a reduction in funding this fiscal year. Savannah State’s total budget...
Investigators probe DeKalb teacher’s relationships with other students
Investigators probe DeKalb teacher’s relationships with other students

Investigators are looking at whether a DeKalb teacher, found dead after being accused of having a sexual relationship with one of his students, had been inappropriate with  other students.  Zachary Meadors, 28, of Lawrenceville, was found dead Wednesday in a vehicle in the 1200 block of Scenic Highway in Gwinnett County late Wednesday...
Kennesaw State, student group settle campus speech lawsuit
Kennesaw State, student group settle campus speech lawsuit

A Kennesaw State University student organization agreed Wednesday to a settlement ending a lawsuit  it filed earlier this year that claimed officials intentionally restricted where and when the group could speak on campus. Ratio Christi, which describes itself as a club that attempts to strengthen the faith of Christian students and evangelizes...
Ga. colleges: Affordability a growing problem for low-income students
Ga. colleges: Affordability a growing problem for low-income students

A group of education reporters and editors recently created a website to track how much money students from different income brackets are paying to attend college. One immediate takeaway from the folks who created the free site, called TuitionTracker.org: Students from lower-income families are paying more for college than they were a few years...
More Stories