Why we can’t fill some jobs even when unemployment is high

When I worked in the tech industry, I saw firsthand how hard it was to fill high-paying jobs which could only be staffed by very smart, highly educated people. When such a position opened up, we would groan because we knew it might take a year or more to fill it. We’d interview people endlessly, and in the rare case we found someone qualified, there would inevitably be a bidding war for that person among numerous companies, one that we lost as often as we won. Frequently, the only way we could fill these positions was to hire internationally because the talent could not be found domestically.

I assumed, at the time, that the problem was simply that there were only so many smart and motivated people in the world, and demand was greater than supply.

Now that I’m raising my kids and seeing where the supply comes from, I know better. We are deliberately sabotaging the supply of smart, highly educated people in this country. Here’s how. These examples are all local. I don’t know if the situation is the same everywhere in the country. I just know it’s true where I live, which happens to be one of the high tech meccas of the United States.

1. At the elementary level, many bright kids are not receiving a gifted education. The National Association for Gifted Children estimates that 5-7% of children would benefit from academic acceleration, yet my local school district provides acceleration only for the top 1% of IQ scorers (IQs of 135 and up). Even IQs of 130-134, Mensa qualifying and considered gifted by any standard, are left in regular classrooms.

2. At the junior high and high school level, many students desiring a more academically rigorous program are denied access to one by lottery. Our district offers an academically rigorous program for 7th-12th grade, but there is only room for 75 students per grade level. Last year, 350+ students applied (via a self-selecting process that involved writing essays). 75 were chosen by lottery to get in. The rest were left to sit in less academically rigorous programs.

3. Our state university, the University of Washington, has cut back on the number of local students it accepts, and is taking more out-of-state students, because of budget cuts. The out-of-state students pay higher tuition rates, so they bring in more money. See article here: UW Taking More Out-of-State Students to Offset Budget Cuts. They are turning away local kids with 3.7 GPAs, and never mind that the parents have been paying local taxes for years and years to support that university.

4. Even worse, of the students it actually accepts, the University of Washington turns away 4 out of 5 of those students who want to study Computer Science, a field very much in demand, because it doesn’t have room for them in its program. Also, last year 680 UW freshmen asked to study Civil Engineering, and only 110 were allowed in. Article here: Let’s give it the old NYC try.

So it’s clear why we’re lacking in talent domestically for these high-paying, highly desirable jobs. We’re deliberately weeding out smart kids at every stage of the game. The schools try to weed out the smart kids in elementary, then weed out the ones who want to study harder in junior high by lottery. Then they weed out the high school seniors with decent GPAs by denying them access to their state university. Then they weed out most of the ones who want to study computer science and engineering and make them study… who knows what.

Why are we weeding kids out, when we should be nurturing them?

Is it any wonder we end up recruiting internationally for these jobs?

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4 Responses to Why we can’t fill some jobs even when unemployment is high

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    Excellent post, Amy. It sounds like the problem is largely related to government-allocated funds for education, which I imagine is related to the economy at least indirectly. Although, now that I say that, I have to wonder, because the Seattle economy is doing really well compared to the national average, at least, that’s what I hear.

    Do you think this trend of weeding out the smart kids will change? Any ideas what it would take to change it? Keeping a lookout for politicians who endorse better funding for education comes to mind, though election platforms often differ vastly from the reality. It sounds cliche, but is there anything I can do? Just curious. Don’t mean to put you on the spot or anything:)

  2. Amy Raby says:

    Thanks, glad you liked the post! I don’t know if the trend will change. Some of it is funding-related, especially at the university level. The good news is there seems to be a lot of political action on this front right now. Obama mentioned the problem of rising tuition costs (due to states cutting the amount of money they used to give to the public universities) in his State of the Union speech, and the Seattle Times is actively campaigning to solve this problem. They recently mentioned a town meeting that was being held to discuss it, which would involve business leaders who would talk about the skilled employees they needed to hire, and which the education system was not producing for them.

    The elementary/middle school problems are more challenging–there are entrenched cultural problems there, with NCLB making the school’s only priority raising the test scores of underperformers, not helping high ability students reach their maximum potential. The schools aren’t rewarded for helping high ability kids, and most of them don’t seem motivated to do it. I’m not sure why more parents aren’t raising an outcry. It may be that most of the angry parents have opted out of the system already (gone homeschooling or to private schools).

  3. Robert says:

    Great post Amy. Thank you!

    I remember being tested constantly, starting in kindergarten. Kids who scored well were accelerated appropriately. We had MGM, ACE/PACE, and probably a half dozen other “gifted” programs. When I finished my classwork in minutes instead of the allotted half hour, my teachers gave me something more challenging to work on. Then sometime in the late 80’s/early 90’s, that stopped. It became politically incorrect to say that one kid was smarter than another. Our school systems focused solely on the slowest students. Kids who find the work easy and finish quickly were just left to rot. Quickly, the smart kids realize that there is no point in excelling, they just have to sit there and wait until the not-so-smart kids finish anyway. As someone who has worked in the educational system for decades, I completely understand the desire to help all kids succeed, but it should not be at the expense of our brightest.

  4. Amy Raby says:

    Glad you liked the post! You’re exactly right–there was a culture change that happened sometime between the 80’s/90’s and today where suddenly it became uncool to help the bright kids reach their maximum potential, and all resources were focused on helping underperforming kids reach a minimum standard. Like you, I think it’s important to help the underperformers. But we shouldn’t be sacrificing our best and brightest to that effort. All kids should be working to their maximum potential.

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