Beyond the Creative Class

Like many Obama supporters, I was totally won over by the jobs speech he gave three weeks ago. The message, the tone -- fantastic. My only real criticism was that he gave the speech in 2011, not 2009.

But in the past few weeks I've been surprised by the scant attention paid to what I thought was the speech's most important message. I don't mean Obama's policy proposals -- mostly predictable, mostly good. I don't mean the very important question of whether the plan is passed, either.

The most important part of the speech came about two-thirds of the way through when Obama, quite unexpectedly, laid out his vision for the future of the American economy. He said "We can be the ones to build everything from fuel-efficient cars to advanced biofuels to semiconductors that we sell all around the world. That's how America can be number one again. And that's how America will be number one again."

This phrase caught my ear because it marks a change from the way most Americans think about America's economic future. It's also a phrase with big implications for how we create a just and effective educational system.

For the past decade or so, conventional wisdom held that our economic growth -- both current and future -- would be fueled by what sociologist Richard Florida styled the Creative Class. Growth in the labor market (or so the thinking went) would revolve around high-paying, geographically mobile jobs with creativity at their core. Most of these jobs require extensive education: engineers, doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, investment bankers. The implications of the creative class model for educators was clear: we needed to prepare every American for college, because most creative class jobs require a college degree.

The Great Recession, however, made it plain that the creative class was not and cannot be the primary driver of economic growth in America. The last decade saw Google, Apple, and Facebook as global success stories, but by 2008 it became clear that job growth in the creative sector had failed to keep pace with job loss and wage depreciation in other sectors, notably manufacturing.

The problem may be with creative class jobs themselves: there just aren't that many of them. As journalist Jon Gertner recently observed, firms employing mostly creative types generate heavy market capitalization, but few jobs. Facebook employs only 2,000 people, Google around 29,000.

Fortunately, the Great Recession also showed us another path. Other industrialized countries, notably Germany, have grown their industrial sectors around high-paying, high-end manufacturing. Think of companies like Siemens that pay highly skilled laborers to make everything from MRI scanners to wind turbines. Germany's economic growth, unlike ours, was real; they're bailing out Europe while we're trying to avoid disaster.

The German model is akin to the vision Obama articulated in his speech: high-end manufacturing that we export to the world. It's a good vision. High-end manufacturing should be a core part of our economy. We don't want to abandon the creative class -- we want places like Silicon Valley, Boston, and LA to be the global centers of high-end creative activity -- but we need to capitalize on the growth potential of the industrial sector, too.

What are the implications of Obama's speech for educators? First, we need to continue to make the most academically rigorous tracks of our K-12 system open to every child. This isn't just a social justice issue; it's also key to making sure that Americans will be poised to take advantage of the still-growing creative class job market.

But we also need to take a closer look at how we educate children (and young adults, and unemployed older adults) for jobs in the high-tech manufacturing sector. This will mean looking harder at what our community colleges do, and at how we think about so-called vocational education. It will also mean looking more closely at countries like Germany and South Korea that are doing well in this sector. Neither country is as good as America -- yet -- at educating kids for creative class jobs, but we could probably learn from them about how education can help create thriving high-tech industries.

Ultimately, I hope we see opportunity in our current crisis: the opportunity to make better predictions about what will drive economic growth in the future. Then we can make sure that our educational system prepares our every child to succeed in a diverse, growing American economy.