Education, Jobs and Capitalism

January 17, 2019

American capitalism has a hate-love relationship with the nation’s schools. On the “hate” side is a stream of complaints from business leaders and organizations about the many students, particularly in city schools, who fail achievement tests, are high school dropouts or, if they complete high school, do not have the academic qualifications for college and advanced-skills education. Given these educational failings, they ask, how will the nation’s economic system obtain the workforce needed for the 21st century economy?

On the surface, this corporate complaining seems to have merit. However, if we pose the question “how well are the nation’s schools serving US capitalism?” there is every reason to conclude that business leaders and organizations, despite their complaints, actually very much love the schools. That’s because, overall, the nation’s schools do a first-rate job educating and providing the array of workers capitalism needs. As importantly, the varied academic achievement outcomes provide capitalism’s leaders a major explanation for why vast numbers of Americans either work for wages insufficient to meet individual and family basic needs, have job insecurity, cannot obtain secure work, can only patch together several part-time jobs, have jobs for which they are educationally overqualified, and why so many workers lead financially precarious lives. Who’s to blame? Why, the schools, of course!

Fundamental to the corporate criticism of the schools for failing both businesses and vast numbers of Americans is the view that in the 21st century global economy, the nature of work is dramatically changing. That is, an increasing number of high-skilled jobs now demand more education, which schools have the task of providing. An example of corporate blame-casting is a report, sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Defense Industry Association, and the US Chamber of Commerce, expressing worry that the US would not “sustain [its] economic leadership of the world because the nation’s schools were not providing the highly skilled workers” businesses need to win in the global economic combat.

For businesses’ political surrogates, this perspective has been bipartisan. President Barack Obama maintained: “The source of America’s prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people. This has never been more true than it is today . . . education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it’s a prerequisite for success.” This prerequisite was the aim of his Common Core State Standards, legislation devised “to ensure that students are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to be globally competitive.”

Despite Donald Trump’s antipathy for all-things-Obama, he echoed his predecessor by expressing support for an educational “agenda . . . that better prepares students to compete in a global economy.” Equipping “America’s young people with the relevant knowledge and skills that will enable them . . . to compete and excel in lucrative and important [high tech] fields.”  Echoing her father’s vision, Ivanka Trump, “senior advisor” to the President, proposed closing the “growing gap between workforce and business needs and workers’ skills” by beginning to teach tech in Kindergarten, thereby putting “our citizens on a pathway to a job.”

Strong support for this vision of “education for the 21st century economy” has come from national teacher organizations. For example, arguing that new business imperatives underscore the need to fully fund schools, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, asserted that “today’s public school teachers are on the front lines of our collective efforts to compete in the global economy.” Providing scholarly evidence for this view has been the work of many leading educational scholars, such as Linda Darling-Hammond, who advocated for schools in which all students, especially those living in poverty, have “access to an equitable, empowering education” that will enable them to “thrive in a technological, knowledge-based economy.”

High-Tech Jobs and the US Economy

To appraise these purported business and employment imperatives, let’s look first at the US economy’s current proportion of high-tech jobs (commonly called STEM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – jobs). The Bureau of Labor Statistics determined that “depending on the definition, the size of the STEM workforce can range from 5 percent to 20 percent of all US workers.” Looking at the issue historically, we find that in 1850, around the start of the Industrial Revolution, top-skilled jobs made up about 10 percent of all work. Consequently, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ generous calculation, we can conclude that the proportion of STEM jobs has doubled, but it has taken over 160 years to do so, and that these jobs still represent only a significant minority of overall jobs – particularly if the 20 percent estimate is high.

With respect to the workforce the schools educate for these high-level jobs, a study by the Economic Policy Institute concluded that the “United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations,” thanks to increased student enrollment following forecasts of employment opportunities in these jobs: “For every two students that US colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job.” In computer and information science and in engineering, “US colleges graduate 50 percent more students than are hired into those fields each year.” The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a “global management consulting firm and the world’s leading advisor on business strategy,” concluded that the “skill gap crisis” was “overblown”. Putting the “crisis” in broad employment terms, BCG added, “Trying to hire high-skilled workers at rock-bottom rates is not a skills gap.”

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately two-thirds of today’s occupations do not require post-secondary education; although those jobs will decline in the years ahead, by 2022 they will still comprise more than half of all new jobs that are expected to be created. Furthermore, of the thirty occupations with the largest projected employment increase by 2022, two-thirds will typically not require post-secondary education. These include such jobs as personal health care aides, home health care aides, retail salespersons, food preparation and service workers (including fast-food workers), janitors and cleaners, medical secretaries, insulation workers, and construction assistants.

Another illuminating perspective is to compare STEM jobs in the 1950s with the present. In the 1950s, STEM jobs were about 15 percent of the total, a proportion that continued into the 1960s. Yet despite this relatively modest percentage, those years were a time when good-paying jobs expanded across the economy, and when the long-hailed US “middle class” – defined as those having a good wage, a house, vacation time, some savings, a retirement pension – was built. It was also a period when profits accumulated as well. When Trump demands we “make America great again,” that is the time to which he looks back.

However, given the relatively modest percentages of STEM jobs that persisted over decades and up to the present, why is it that now there is the corporate insistence that if American workers are to survive in the new economy, they must acquire advanced skills (STEM) education? In other words, between the height of the American Dream years – the 1950s and 1960s – and today, the percentage difference in STEM jobs has been about 5 percent, and perhaps less. Is it really possible that with 5 percent fewer STEM jobs, the age of the American Dream was built?  Or, looking at the other side of the equation, how can we explain that the middle class was built with 85 percent non-STEM jobs, yet presently the middle-class is collapsing with about 80 percent non-STEM jobs?

One major answer lies in the difference in organized labor then and now, and in the forbidden phrase: labor’s “class struggle.” Consider manufacturing jobs. Although there are not as many manufacturing jobs now as then – currently, there are slightly more than 12 million such jobs in the United States, compared with about 15-16 million in the 1950s – manufacturing today should demonstrate an area of employment through which, as before, the American Dream could be reached. In other words, shouldn’t the mantra be, “If you get a STEM education or a manufacturing job, life can be good (or, at least somewhat economically secure)?” The answer, unfortunately, is no, because, as a study by the National Employment Law Project illustrates, today’s manufacturers can pay workers deficient wages, so why should they pay them more?

In the 1950s, economist Robert Reich calculates, manufacturing job wages were significantly higher than the average wage: “Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker got paid $35 an hour in today’s dollars.” Wages for manufacturing jobs have continued to drop over the decades, however, with many manufacturing jobs now paying less than a living wage. Currently, the median wage in manufacturing is $15.66 an hour, with approximately one-quarter of manufacturing workers earning less than $12/hour, and many earning just $10–$11/hour. For example, General Electric workers in Louisville, Kentucky, earn $13/hour making electric water heaters. Remington, the gun company, pays workers $11/hour in its Alabama manufacturing facilities.

Serving Capitalism Well

Why does corporate America actually love the nation’s schools? Given US capitalism’s control of the American economy, the economic system’s educational needs are best served by ensuring that the nation’s school achievement does not get out of hand; that is, schools cannot become too successful in producing well-educated graduates for the purportedly vast (but actually small) number of STEM jobs. The corporate strategy in this regard is simple:

  • provide just enough funds to maintain the educational system that, overall, currently serves the economy well;
  • ensure that taxpayers fund most of the schooling serving businesses;
  • do not fully fund schooling for those poor or marginally poor American youth whose futures will fit well with the present and future jobs that will be predominant in the economy – fast food, simple service, basic health care, low-skilled factory work;
  • maximize profit by not contributing more to the public good than is absolutely necessary for business needs;
  • pay workers as little as possible, maintaining that the work and wages are commensurate with their educational levels and skills.

Were the schools as a whole not serving the economy well, we can be certain that the nation’s major corporations – Walmart, Dow Chemical, Goldman Sachs, Chevron, Microsoft, IBM, Apple and others – would be focused on achieving the best educational outcomes in STEM education by providing schools with additional tax funds from the more than $1 trillion these corporations have stashed in offshore tax havens. Similarly, were these corporations concerned that not enough poor children were being properly educated to meet employment needs, we should not doubt that some of these unpaid taxes would have made their way into these children’s lives.

Blaming the victim

Blaming schooling, teachers and students turns the nation’s focus away from the reality of the array of jobs actually available, and away from US capitalism’s numerous ways for extracting ever-greater profits – such as paying the lowest wages here and abroad, reducing or eliminating job benefits, outsourcing work, and creating an ever-growing temporary workforce. While all the blame is foisted on teachers, students, and Americans generally, the “failure of education” ideology is meant to keep the eyes of Americans on one message: YOU are responsible for yourself; getting a decent job and having a decent income depends solely on YOU; and if YOU don’t have a good job and income it’s because YOU haven’t had the right kind of education (for which educators are to blame). Your problem is not a consequence of corporate policy, corporate greed, and corporate attacks on the public good, not a problem of how wealth is acquired and used. YOU and your teachers are the problem, and most of all, YOU are a problem for American business and America because YOU have failed to become part of the skilled workforce these businesses and the nation need.

Teacher organizations, parents and older students must face the fact that they will never obtain the reforms they demand because the schools are actually serving capitalism well. Consequently, it is imperative for teacher organizations and other social justice groups concerned with education to begin creating an opposition that explains how educational achievement is primarily contingent on what the economic system needs, which is far different from what American workers and families need. That is, schools serving capitalism well is not the same as serving all children and young people well.

With respect to the curriculum, these organizations need to take up the very difficult but necessary task – surely a task that will meet strong corporate resistance – of insisting that “education for the 21st century economy” is a legitimate goal, but that “education” must include comprehensive study of the actual working of that economy.

In recent years there has been an increased, critical spotlight on capitalism. “Capitalism” is no longer the word that cannot be uttered. For example, inquiring about American views on capitalism and socialism, Gallup Poll found that a substantial percentage of Democrats/Leaners (57%) had a more positive view of socialism than of capitalism, with the most positive view of socialism expressed by Americans 18 to 29. While Americans overall have a positive view of capitalism, the positive rating has declined over the last eight years, and is now at its lowest level since 2010. Again, most significantly, public conversations about capitalism’s benefits and harms are increasingly in public and political discourse. In August 2018, for example, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the “Accountable Capitalism Act,” which raises questions about the interests corporations serve. Education activist organizations might do well to push for similar legislation.

The time is overripe for teacher organizations to frame schooling and school reforms within the context of that-which-must-be-named. Only by explaining how schools as a whole serve capitalism will teachers’ organizations begin to acquire a more successful leadership role in improving young people’s education, lives and futures.


This article is drawn from Gerald Coles’ Miseducating for the Global Economy: How Corporate Power Damages Education and Subverts Students’ Futures (Monthly Review Press, 2018). References for this article can be found in the book.

Gerald Coles

Gerald Coles is an educational psychologist who has written extensively on literacy and learning disabilities. He is the author of Reading Lessons: The Debate Over Literacy, and The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at "Learning Disabilities," as well as numerous articles in educational and psychology journals. He can be reached at gcwriting [at]

Tags: building resilient education systems, capitalism, Education