What Job Training Can -- and Cannot -- Fix
On Tuesday night, President Obama called for greater investment in job training programs for American workers. This is a great idea -- but maybe not for all the reasons that he thinks. Here's the President:
I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that -- openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work.
There are actually two separate issues that this quote is raising, but only one of them can really be fixed by more job training. Our near-term issue is high unemployment, which the President suggests is at least partially due to a mismatch between the skills that unemployed workers have and the skills demanded by today's fastest-growing job sectors. According to the President, if we just re-train workers in the skills that are in demand today, we can start filling those pesky job openings.
But here's the problem: there's no real proof that today's unemployment rates are due to a skills-mismatch. As I've written before, while there may be plenty of jobs available in science and technology, these openings are actually getting filled at a rapid pace -- the overwhelming share in less than a month.
For the near-term problem of high unemployment, we need to focus less on filling whatever openings might exist right now and instead create more job openings in the first place. Moreover, I know the President knows this -- greater investment in infrastructure and even a modest public jobs program figured prominently in his American Jobs Act that Congressional Republicans have basically sworn a blood oath to block at all costs. With the exception of an isolated reference to more infrastructure funding, however, Obama's speech lacked any renewed commitment to these direct-spending policies.
That's a shame. But while job training may be the wrong policy for combating unemployment, it remains vitally important for addressing America's other, more long-term problem: maintaining a comparative advantage in a globally competitive labor market. As I wrote earlier this week, the offshore migration of high tech manufacturing jobs is a genuine skills-based problem, and with greater investment in comprehensive education reform, the U.S. has a real shot at regaining its global economic leadership.
The President's focus on job training is certainly refreshing, if for no other reason than it shifts the focus away from wasteful corporate tax cuts as a means of promoting U.S. global competitiveness. But if we don't stay focused on exactly what is needed to combat our short-term unemployment crisis, I'm afraid we'll risk turning it into a long-term problem as well.