Friday, October 26, 2012

Campus Event: Professor Heckman on "The Skills Problem"

This event is part of the Convocation Series at Berea College. The event took place on October 25, 2012. The nice thing about the series is that most of them take place in the daytime, so I am able to go during the work day when I can take a moment from my work. In fact, it is approved by the powers that be for me to go to campus events here when I can. I have been to others and taken notes, and I hope to post some of those notes over time on the blog. The topic for Professor Heckman's lecture seems very relevant for this election cycle, so I wanted to get it in a bit sooner. Besides, it is not very often I can say I listened in person to one of the ten most influential economists in the world. I am posting about it here instead of at The Gypsy Librarian because this content does have some political significance. Some of what Dr. Heckman says may go along with the remarks Cheri Honkala delivered on campus recently. As my four readers know, politics is something I leave for this blog here.

As I said, these are just my notes as I listened:

  • The upcoming election is about inequality. The concepts of the 1% and the 99% are very real. The inequality creates instability. 
  • The housing market is not really discussed in the election campaigns. Neither major party has addressed this. 
  • Skills are important to success and to do well in the new economies. This is understood, yet we've seen a pathological phenomenon of society producing less skilled people as demand for skilled people goes up. 
  • A myth: we [in the United States] live in a society of great opportunity and social mobility. The reality is one of income persistence in the disadvantaged across generations. 
  • We need to think broadly. The skills problem is crucial. So is a lack of thinking broadly, not just one remedial tactic to solve social ills, but what we need are strategies to address a larger picture. We need policies of predistribution, prevention, not just remediation. We need skills education at key points in life. 
  • Personality and other so-called "soft skills" are crucial, along with cognitive skills. The gap in the skills opens early, and schools do contribute to enlarging the skills gap. We must note also that family influence is crucial. Policy planners have to recognize the role of family in providing skills to children. 
  • To promote equality, society needs to engage the family from the early life of the child. Economically, this does have a high rate of return, and the strategies are socially fair [sadly, he really did not mention or offer any of those specific strategies]. 
  • Family life is a major determiner of inequality in schools. 
  • Higher levels of cognitive and personality skills, together, predict positive behaviors. 
  • Being smart is not enough. People who get a GED can be as smart as high graduates, yet studies reveal that the earnings of people with a GED are closer to the earnings of school dropouts. They may be missing non-cognitive life skills. Promoting these skills promotes social mobility. 
  • The argument: family life matters. 
  • The skills, cognitive and life skills, interact in dynamic ways. Personality and social skills enhance cognitive skills. 
  • You can address some problems in adolescence. Personality skills are still malleable in youth. However, early life factors determine education outcomes We get higher returns with investing at early ages, so then things get better. It creates a base that pays off later. 
  • Otherwise, skill deficits early on contribute to problems later. 
  • Parenting quality is a measure of advantage, not just income and money. 
Overall, the lecture was interesting. I did wish he would have gone into some specifics on how to do the things he describes to move from the lofty "we ought to do this and here is why" to "and we can do it by doing this, this, and that."

He did write a book a while back that seems to explain some of this better, so I may look it up down the road. The book is  Inequality in America: What Role for Human Capital Policy? (link to WorldCat record).

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