Why Education and Employment Go Hand-in-Hand

In the new movie "Larry Crowne," Tom Hanks plays a Navy veteran who is a manager at one of those big box stores where you can buy bananas, a TV, new tires for your car and a fish tank all under one roof. Although he is something of a superstar employee, he's unceremoniously let go when the company downsizes, and one reason he's given is that he lacks the college education that many other professionals have.

Of course, in magical movie land, Hanks decides to go to community college to get an education and revamp his career. After making friends with a delightful group of students who ride scooters -- because why wouldn't they? -- he develops a crush on his embittered speech teacher, played by Julia Roberts.

You can assume that romantic hilarity ensues. This is, after all, a comedy starring Hanks and Roberts. You'll recall that last year she played a woman who needed to escape the confines of daily life and decided to eat her way through various countries. Along the way she ate and prayed and still looked fantastic. And Hanks managed to make being stranded on a deserted island fun and heartwarming.

In other words, this movie's goal isn't to expose the anguish the average American would feel in this situation. The predicament, however, is all very real for many workers.

Veterans in the Workforce

That Larry Crowne is a veteran who finds himself in a tough professional spot isn't surprising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "The unemployment rate for veterans who served in the military at any time since September 2001 -- a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans -- was 11.5 percent in 2010." (Admittedly, this group of veterans would be of a different generation than Crowne's.) Although the overall employment rate for veterans is approximately the same or slightly better than non-veterans in most categories, younger veterans have a moderately higher unemployment rate than older veterans.

A recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times highlights the plights of many unemployed veterans. It quotes veterans advocates as giving these reasons for the high rate of veteran joblessness:

  • Military culture, language and job skills are not easily translated or understood in the civilian world.
  • Many veterans coming out of the service don't know how to effectively market themselves.
  • Insufficient private-sector involvement in government programs designed to help veterans transition into the civilian workforce."
  • Education and career advancement.

Another significant issue facing workers is education, or a lack thereof. The Lumina Foundation, an education advocacy foundation, has assessed the education level of the current workforce overall and state-by-state, and they found that college degrees will continue to be deciding factors in employment.

Recently on PBS's "Nightly Business Report," Jamie Merisotis, the president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, explained where we're headed as a nation:

The facts show that the number of jobs for workers with high school diplomas is shrinking, rapidly. In many cases, entire industries that employed these workers are vanishing. Lifetime earnings of college graduates are nearly double of high school graduates.

This outlook is mirrored by Dr. Mary B. Hawkins, president of Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb.:

Higher education is an economic issue when the unemployment rate for people who've never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college. It's an issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade.

That said, workers face serious hurdles when it comes to obtaining a degree: time and money. In the movie, Crowne can afford to go back to school and spend time with his scooter pals. In reality, workers would be panicking about paying for school and finding a babysitter for their children, or about finding another job to offset the cost. Granted, this would have made for a downer of a film.

Some people have been able to overcome the time dilemma with online courses at schools like Bellevue or countless others, which allow for flexible schedules. Some students opt to take a lighter class load so that they can continue to work and earn money.

Even with these options, school is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor that workers, their families -- and maybe even their employers -- probably will continue to struggle with.

To get a clearer picture of where Americans are headed in terms of education, check out this extensive study, which breaks down education attainment state-by-state. It's worth a read to see how the country's workers and your state's workforce looks like, and to evaluate the job-search competition. It might inspire you to hit the books or at least to revamp your résumé and cover letter to emphasize your educational qualifications. (Or maybe you'll meet a teacher who looks just like a movie star and fall in love! If that happens, let us know in the comments section.)

As always, we're interested in your experience. Has a college education been a boost to your career? Do you think employers are demanding a college education as a minimum requirement these days? Have you or anyone you know gone back to school to improve your career prospects?

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