On Tuesday, the New York Times published an in-depth feature on working life in America with a headline that reads: "Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They're Not."
In it, Matthew Desmond notes that nearly a third of America's workforce earns less than $12 an hour and nearly none of their employers offers health insurance. These are the country's "working poor." In a strong economy with low unemployment, finding a job isn't a problem. In fact, millions of job vacancies go unfilled because of a dearth of qualified candidates. The jobs available to people without much education, however, don't pay enough to live on.
That's why the Colorado Department of Higher Education has been on a mission to establish the link between educational attainment and economic prosperity.
"We've seen a decline in the way higher ed is viewed as a public good at the precise moment in which we're recognizing that, by and large, to have any decent shot at living a middle-class life, people need to have some sort of post-secondary education," said Dr. Dan Baer, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
The state's economic development gurus predict that by 2020, 74 percent of jobs in Colorado will require some sort of post-secondary certificate or degree. The department's goal of getting 66 percent of the state's working population to that level of educational attainment by 2025 is still going to leave a skills gap, Baer noted.
"Colorado has the No. 1 economy in the nation," he told the Sentinel's editorial board. "We will not have the strongest economy in the nation by 2028 or 2038 if we don't figure out how to make sure all of Colorado is being lifted in terms of skills they have or the ability to compete in a 21st century economy, which is inevitably not just national, but global."
Because of a hot economy and desirable quality of life, the state's "brand is incredibly strong," Baer said. "Maintaining that means investing for the future and certainly education has to be one of the places we invest."
Currently 56 percent of the state meets criteria for post-secondary educational attainment. The department is crunching numbers on the remaining 44 percent. In the metropolitan statistical area that encompasses Mesa County, 59 percent of working adults fall into the 44 percent non-attainment category.
Statewide, 71 percent of people of color fall into the 44 percent. Half a million Coloradans have a GED or high school diploma or even some college, but no degree. "How to reach them and serve them more effectively is going to be part of our master plan of getting to 66 percent," Baer said.
There's no silver bullet to optimizing the state's workforce. The economy and quality of life here attract plenty of degreed out-of-state workers to fill gaps, but at the expense of native Coloradans who, for whatever reason, either don't have access to higher education or can't justify the personal investment.
The push to expand the universe of people served in higher education institutions requires not only taxpayer dollars, but new pathways — like CareerWise apprenticeships — that pair skills with opportunity.
Baer said he's seen young students who wouldn't have gone for a four-year engineering degree "but for the fact that their apprenticeship helped them finish with a diploma and start making a living and see themselves on a trajectory for more learning. That's a model that has a lot of promise."
Editor's note: Dr. Baer is the executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. A previous version of this editorial misidentified the agency as the Department of Education.