Various economic and political forces are steering some young people away from studying for degrees in disciplines such as science, law and medicine, while some new graduates face a shrinking pool of entry-level jobs. Kevin Leicht, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, studies issues surrounding economic inequality, prosperity and the effects of public policies on the middle class. Leicht spoke with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest.
How is the gig economy — the trend of hiring on-demand workers or independent contractors — affecting job opportunities for highly trained professionals?
Young professionals used to perform the back-office activities that did not involve direct client interaction. In the legal profession, these were tasks such as researching a problem or writing a document. These less-visible jobs were where young practitioners were trained.
Much of this work is being outsourced now — or can be — because it’s far cheaper for a big law firm to hold an online meeting with lawyers in India and have them write a legal document overnight while the partners in the U.S. are sleeping than to pay young lawyers in the firm to write it.
It’s great for the Indian lawyers because they’re getting work they wouldn’t otherwise get. But if these back-office jobs no longer exist here, there is no ready way for young practitioners to enter the system.
This is occurring in many other fields as well, including medicine, pharmacy, engineering, accounting and management consulting. It’s a serious problem for young practitioners.
Have the shifting demographics of highly educated professionals in the U.S. played a role in the broader public’s declining trust in experts?
For all its problems, higher education in the U.S. has done a pretty good job of diversification. The graduates from medical schools and law schools look a lot more like the changing demographics of the country. But some people worry, if my doctor or lawyer no longer looks like me, or like a white, upper-middle-class person, is their advice any good?
Some on the left perceived the Trump administration as waging a war on scientists by leaving appointments in key agencies unfilled and challenging experts’ findings on climate change with “alternative facts.” Were these actions unique to the partisan political culture of the time?
While former President Trump brought attacks on experts to a head, they were occurring for quite a while before that. I’m not sure exactly when this started, but it seems to coincide with the rightward turn in the Republican party in the late 1990s.
For example, when the Clinton administration balanced the federal budget, Republicans suddenly said deficits didn’t matter anymore because the balanced budget was achieved by the other party.
The arguments over the Affordable Care Act were another example. Other developed nations have some form of publicly subsidized health care that produces better outcomes than the U.S. system. Yet, there is opposition to it in the U.S. because people fear socialized medicine and the government possibly deciding when to turn off grandma’s ventilator. These arguments conveniently ignored the fact that about a third of the American population had no coherent access to health care prior to the ACA.
How is the labor-market supply of professionals in the U.S. being affected by these factors and by racism?
One of the problems with denigrating professionals is that those we’re now producing are part of a globalized labor market. If they are treated badly in one venue, they can just move to a different one.
For quite a while, the U.S. had a wonderful situation where people who wanted to be in these professions came here. But increasingly, they are either not coming to the U.S. or they are coming to get trained and they leave because there’s anti-immigrant bias or they have decided they just can’t do science in the U.S.
What changes could be made to improve the outlook for young professionals and how they are perceived?
In many professional domains, there’s almost a winner-take-all labor market, where the top 10 percent are doing really well and everyone else isn’t. To get millennials more interested in these professions and more profitably use their skills, we must make professional training cheaper.
In almost all countries with subsidized medicine, medical education is almost completely free, so people don’t graduate from medical school with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. However, because graduates in the U.S. do, they gravitate toward the highest-paying specialties or geographic regions, when these professions are desperately needed in rural communities in central Illinois, for example.
The perception that graduates of professional schools are chasing money is not altogether false, but they are doing it for a reason — they have huge educational debts to pay off. If that changed, it might change some misperceptions and mistrust of professionals as well.