Despite higher gasoline prices, U.S. consumers loosened their purse strings last month. According to the Commerce Department, retail sales rose 0.8 percent in March. Some of the gain, of course, is due to higher prices at the pump. But even when sales of autos and gasoline are excluded, retail sales still increased 0.7 percent.
The improvement in March pushed 1st quarter retail sales to a record high of $411.1 billion, 24 percent above the recession low tallied in March of 2009.
Questions remain, however, in the housing and labor markets. The National Association of Realtors, reports sales of previously owned homes fell nearly 3 percent in March.
And the four-week average of initial applications for unemployment benefits rose last week to its highest level in three months.
Those seeking work might be wise to examine demographic trends in rural America. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farmers 75 years or older increased by 20 percent, while the number of producers under the age of 25 decreased by 30 percent.
The lack of young people choosing to farm has yielded a dearth of agricultural teachers. This week, the Obama Administration conducted a town hall meeting in Wisconsin hoping to address both trends.
This week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced an interagency agreement to recruit the best and brightest of the next generation to pursue careers in agricultural education.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “We want to do everything we can to strengthen education in rural communities. We can’t have a strong country if our rural economy isn’t strong and the only way we get there is through high quality education.”
The two federal departments will exchange a variety of information and participate in joint activities in hopes of making higher education affordable and accessible to all. And the goal is to help prepare students for careers related to agriculture, food and natural resources.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack: “We used to be a country that valued both those who work with their head and their hands. And we’ve now become a country that values folks who work with just their heads and undervalue those that work with their hands. And we ought not to be that kind of country because that is what made us great.”
Part and parcel to the program is motivating young people to become teachers in rural communities.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “In South Korea, which is a very high performing country, their teachers are known as nation-builders. I think our teachers are nation-builders, as well. But we don't treat them as such, respect them as such. So I've been very public, and not everyone agrees with me, I think we need to double starting teacher salaries. I think a great teacher should be able to make $130,000, $140,000, $150,000. I think a principal should be able to make a lot more money. And let me be clear, nobody goes into education to get rich. Teachers are the most altruistic people I know. But you also shouldn't take a vow of poverty to do this work.”
While pushing salaries for teachers higher may be less likely to occur, Duncan says incentives are already in place to encourage teachers to stay in the profession. Among those mentioned were forgiving college loans after several years of service and loan repayment schedules based on income.
Vilsack believes USDA also can provide encouragement for new teachers. He pointed to infrastructure improvements in schools through the Broadband Initiatives Program and a proposed initiative to give low interest home loans to new teachers to encourage them to stay in rural areas.