In the early 1990s, Jacob Mincer, a leading labor economist at Columbia University, convened a meeting of journalists and economists on understanding why the wage gap between high school and college educated peers was widening. Among the participants was Fischer Black, the legendary financier who co-created in 1973 the main method financiers use to value options — the Black-Scholes model. He was a partner at Goldman Sachs at the time, one of Wall Street's original "rocket scientists."
Black said little during the meeting until remarking, "Why are we talking about school so much? What you learn on the job is 9 to 11 times what you learn at school. That seems a reasonable estimate to me." The conversation paused while we absorbed his comment, but we quickly went back to education and earnings inequality topic of the meeting (unfortunately in retrospect).
I've always appreciated the wisdom behind Black's cryptic insight. I recalled that moment while reading a scholarly paper by North Carolina State University economist Robert Clark, "Effectiveness of employer-provided financial education programs'" Clark looks into the findings of a series of studies done over the past 20 years examining employer-benefit education programs for employees at large firms, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. The studies evaluated the impact of employer-provided on-boarding programs, midcareer financial education programs and retirement planning sessions targeted at employees nearing retirement. The focus of the studies is retirement.
The results are uniformly positive. Workers had good reason to understand their benefits better, especially their retirement plan. The boost in employee financial knowledge about retirement and savings documented by Clark is a welcome accomplishment in light of the dismal showing most surveys show when Americans are queried about their understanding of personal finances.
"Considering all of the studies reviewed in this article, one can see the power of employer-provided financial education programs for workers throughout careers, from initial hiring to the last day of employment, programs can increase financial literacy and lead to changes in saving and retirement decisions," he concludes.
The bad news is you have to work for an organization that offers its employees a retirement savings plan. The good news is that employees do learn even relatively complicated financial topics when there are good job-related reasons to absorb the knowledge. Employers are in a unique position to increase the financial literacy and money decision making of their employees. Fisher Black was right. Financial literacy (and many other skills) can be improved with education on the job.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, "Marketplace"; commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.