If we compare the U.S. economy with other major capitalist economies, such as Germany or Sweden, we see stark differences in the link between education and the economy. Put simply, many European economies are characterized by higher degrees of coordination among the stakeholders than our economy is. This manifests itself in many ways, including the larger role that labor unions play in companies’ decision-making.
It also shows up in the educational system, where the focus often is on training people from an early age for a specific career. The very good public education systems ensure that salespeople, artists, mechanics, managers, engineers and secretaries are well-trained in the specific set of skills required in their specific jobs.
In the U.S., the educational system has always given at least a nod to a broader education. We require students to take courses in fields very different from their own: engineering and design students sit alongside business and French majors in my international political economy and European politics classes. While we rightly provide outstanding technical training, we also strive to produce students with a more generalized set of skills, which employers can hone through on-the-job experience.
The implications of those different educational systems – specificity versus creativity – are substantial. The well-known social safety nets of Europe exist in part because workers’ training leaves them less mobile across jobs. Workers agree to a specific training that limits mobility in exchange for greater support when the specific job for which they are qualified isn’t available. The more general education of American students, on the other hand, allows them to apply their skills in a broader number of jobs, making them more mobile…