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Covid Learning Loss Isn’t Confined To The Classroom — It’s Hurting Our Economy

The acute shortages of knowledge and skills among young people are having real-world effects on the economy.

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Over the past few years, numerous studies have chronicled the ways in which millions of American students suffered massive learning losses during the pandemic. But other evidence also suggests losses have come outside the classroom as well, in ways that have damaged economic growth and productivity.

A recent story in The Wall Street Journal highlighted the ways in which knowledge losses and the disappearance of certain “soft skills” during the post-pandemic years have harmed the economy, creating qualification gaps that employers have struggled to fill. It’s the latest data point indicating that shutting down an entire economy and encouraging people to stay at home and take Zoom classes for months on end wasn’t the best way to create a motivated and well-educated workforce.

Creating Labor Shortages

The Journal article provides myriad examples from across the economy of how skills shortfalls present “one reason why professional service jobs are going unfilled and goods aren’t making it to market. It also helps explain why national productivity has fallen for the past five quarters, the longest contraction since at least 1948”:

  • Since the start of the pandemic, “the pass rates on national certifications and assessment exams taken by engineers, office workers, soldiers, and nurses have all fallen.” For instance, on one fundamentals of engineering certification exam, scores fell by 10 percent, with the largest declines coming in areas of specialized knowledge individuals will need to work as successful engineers.
  • A religion professor who had to pare back his curriculum to focus on the basics observed that “reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills are not the same as they were in the past.”
  • Scores on entrance exams for nursing schools have fallen 5 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels, limiting the ability of health care providers to fill staffing shortages they have suffered since Covid.
  • Managers at a zoo in Michigan “are coaching seasonal workers in their teens and early 20s on basics such as why it’s important to look visitors in the eye, and how to make change at a cash register. They are also trying to instill a work ethic in their employees that includes taking some initiative, getting off their phones and engaging with visitors,” because a lack of accountability for poor performance while in school has led to a lack of motivation when young people leave the classroom.
  • A Los Angeles company that administers 10 million assessments annually to prospective employees found that verbal scores among men under 25 dropped dramatically during the pandemic, with the biggest losses “registered in communication skills, reading comprehension, grammar, spelling, and attention to detail.”
  • The head of one workforce development center quoted employers as saying, “‘We’re just trying to find some people who can fog the mirror.’”
  • Another employment agency head, noting that skills “used to be taught in schools,” noted that “now people have to be told not to bring their kids to work,” lamenting that “I’m really concerned by the product that’s coming out of the school system currently.”

Economic Costs

All these knowledge and skills shortages among young people have real-world effects on the economy. With the Journal noting that hospitals incur an average of $42,000 in costs every time a student fails a nursing competency exam, the lower pass rates for these types of certifications have cascading effects — and costs.

One Indiana community college felt the need to embed tutors in their nursing program, to help students with skills they should have learned in high school. As one student, who spent more than a year in remote learning, told the Journal, “when I got here I realized I wasn’t ready for nursing school. I realized I didn’t know how to study.”

When this school has to teach students skills they failed to learn in high school, or when the Army has to “create a new testing boot camp to help recruits pass,” and offset a 9 percent drop in scores on recruiting exams since the pandemic, that additional friction in the economy affects us all. It raises costs for businesses, which get passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices (e.g., higher community college tuition), lower productivity, and ultimately, lower growth in the economy and wages.

Because most of the money thrown at public schools to arrest Covid learning loss has apparently gone to waste, these skills shortfalls seem likely to persist, or even grow, as more ill-taught students get released into the economy unprepared to join the workforce every year. It suggests that, much as inflation ended up proving far from “transitory,” the effects of unions’ campaign to keep schools locked down during Covid will persist for years, if not decades, after the pandemic.


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