State may see shortage of educated workers, group says

Lifsher is a Times staff writer.

California could run short of college graduates needed to keep its economy humming by 2025, a think tank warned in a report to be issued today.

As a result, the state may not have enough teachers, computer programmers, scientists and other key workers to meet escalating 21st century demands.

If current trends continue, in 16 years the state should expect 4 out of every 10 workers to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, said a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.


Whereas the number of college-educated workers grew significantly over the last two decades -- from 28% in 1990 to 34% in 2006 -- the pace is likely to slow because of California’s fast-changing demographics, the San Francisco-based institute said.

Having too few college graduates and too many non-college graduates in the workforce could contribute to growing income inequality between educational haves and have-nots, predicted Deborah Reed, the report’s author.

Closing the projected gap and creating “a workforce to fuel future economic growth” will require policymakers to focus “on the quality of education at all levels, from preschool to the state’s universities,” Reed said.

Making that kind of costly investment, though crucial, might be difficult during the next few years as the governor and lawmakers grapple with a projected $28-billion shortfall in state funding for the current and coming fiscal years, she acknowledged.

Much of California’s educational spending and direction must be focused on the fast-growing Latino student population, which represents 48% of the state’s 6.3 million public school students, said State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell.

“It’s more critical than ever to have a well-skilled, educated, critical-thinking workforce,” O’Connell said. “That will come from the subgroups who continue to lag behind their peers.” Getting more minority children through college is his state Department of Education’s top priority, he said.

Latino expansion, from 29% of the working-age population in 2006 to a projected 40% by 2020, is one factor in the expected slowing of growth in the number of California college graduates, Reed said. Two others are the retiring of members of the educated baby boom generation and the reversal in what historically had been a migration of people with degrees into California from other states and countries.

Since 2000, more college-educated people have moved away from California than moved into the Golden State, Reed said.

Churning out graduates through the University of California, California State University systems and private schools is essential to a strong economy but is only one piece of the education puzzle, said Jack Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn. The education system is failing to train technical workers, such as plumbers and electricians, that employers need, he said.

“The system has walked away from the old idea of preparing a student for a lifelong career,” Stewart said. “Instead, it’s trying to prepare all of them for college and not doing a good job of that. Our universities are full, and the idea of doubling the number of students who get four-year degrees is ludicrous.”

All students, whether they graduate from college, high school or technical training, should benefit if the state holds them to tough standards, especially in the lower grades, said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce.

Studies show that children who perform poorly on a seventh-grade assessment test also fail an 11th-grade test, Zaremberg said.

“We have to have good high schools, good middle schools and good elementary schools,” he said. “But we have to demand grade-level proficiency.”