Young Ben Franklin came to Philadelphia as a runaway apprentice, broke and hungry. He worked hard at the trade he'd partly learned; impressed important people; hooked a job as clerk to city lawmakers, using it to direct Pennsylvania's public printing jobs to his fledgling private press; and made himself useful, respected, and rich enough to endow job-training programs.
Could a young Franklin do as well today? Patrick Harker, a former college president who now heads the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, asked Friday in a Franklin birthday talk at his old American Philosophical Society.
Too many Americans live as if that opportunity no longer exists. Harker had noted, in a Chester County Chamber of Commerce speech the day before, thatPennsylvania's unemployment rate is higher than the national average -- "but when I talk to employers and business owners, they say they can’t find qualified applicants."
That's why so many tech, services, and farm employers keep lobbying to bring in job-ready immigrants -- outsiders like young Franklin, who came here from the independent Massachusetts colony, trained in printing and ready to work.
This despite the fact that more than one in 10 American men from their 20s to their early 50s isn't working or looking for work, Harker marveled. By contrast, almost all American men were in the labor force in the mid-1900s.
The main reasons aren't all clear -- some of it is voluntary -- yet Harker says he hears frustrations from both "people out there who want jobs," and also from employers who insist they can't find able, reliable workers.
As far as Harker, a former Wharton dean and University of Delaware president, can see, "the gap is in skills." He echoes those critics who worry the push to put more young people in college hasn't served the majority of students who don't earn a degree.
In his proposal to found what is now Penn in 1749, Franklin questioned the need to frustrate students by teaching ancient and foreign languages and other things "they would seldom have Occasion to use."
Franklin wanted his school to teach "science," prepping young people "for the different Employments" that God, and employers, need. Plus, of course, good "principles" and "habits" that help people grow in their jobs as opportunity shifts.
Harker says Fed researchers in Philadelphia have found nearly one-third of U.S. jobs pay at least the national average wage of around $48,000 -- and don't require a college degree.
He's encouraged by the Philadelphia Academies project at Roxborough High and other public schools, which offer courses that are supposed to make students job-ready on graduation in subjects "from international entrepreneurship to biotech."
He speculated that "maybe someone as extraordinary as Ben Franklin would’ve succeeded anyway, if he’d been born today," despite leaving school at 10 to work.
But, Harker concludes, it's in the public interest, in this era when employers give less training than they used to, to help more students do what it takes to prep realistically for the job opportunities there are. "To quote Ben again: 'An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.' "