By DON McINTOSH, Associate editor
Reynolds Aluminum closes. Freightliner and Boeing lay off thousands. Consolidated Freightways goes out of business. Atofina Chemical. Pendleton Woolen Mills. Atlas Copco Wagner. Sawmills. Paper mills. In Oregon and Washington and across the country, good-paying unionized industrial jobs are vanishing rapidly, leaving hundreds of thousands to cope with unemployment in a recession that shows few signs of abating. People are doing everything that they can to find a job that matches their skill set, including using a resume writing service to help with getting their employment history set out so that they can have a chance at finding somewhere else, even if it is a longer commute.
And what is the government’s response? In previous eras, from the 1930s New Deal to the era of Jimmy Carter, when times were tough, the government stepped in as an employer of last resort, providing temporary jobs in public works, or simply providing people a subsidy to get by until they could find work.
But a new political orthodoxy has replaced that approach, says University of Oregon professor Gordon Lafer. Lafer, on staff of the U of O’s Labor Education and Research Center and a longtime researcher in union campaigns, recently published a book criticizing the government’s “job training fits all” approach to unemployment. Titled “The Job Training Charade,” the book is the product of over a decade of research.
Lafer pulls few punches. He argues that the government’s focus on job training is a political diversion, that government training programs have little or no effect on overall employment, and that workers are being trained for jobs that don’t exist.
It’s a message he’s been pitching to unions and academics.
Lafer says job training programs focus attention on the supposed shortcomings of workers instead of the realities of an economic system that never produced enough jobs for everyone.
Whether you’re a poor teenager who’s never had a job, or a skilled worker who’s lost your job to foreign trade, technological change or corporate restructuring, job training is the prescription. Lafer argues that the earlier approaches worked because they took into account labor market realities: the economy doesn’t produce full employment on its own. In the late 1970s, three-quarters of a million people were employed in public works programs in a program known as the Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration (CETA).
“The way we got job training is that the previous program, CETA, expired in 1982,” Lafer says. “Originally, the Reagan Administration wanted to let it expire and have no employment program. But in 1982 unemployment was at 10 percent, and politically it was impossible for them to do nothing. So they came up with job training as a political response to the need to do something.”
“Democrats kind of gave up the fight on unemployment. People on the right would say ‘the problem with poor people is that they’re lazy, and what you have to do is cut social benefits to force them back to work.’ And the humane Democrats would say ‘no, no, no, they really want to work, they just lack the skills,’ so the pro-training position became the position of people with a heart. But what both of these have in common is deciding that one way or another, the explanation of poverty lies in the fault of workers themselves as opposed to anything you could fight in business or government policy.”
The Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), the prototype job training program, was the main accomplishment of Senator Dan Quayle, who later become Vice President under George Bush Sr. The problem with it, Lafer argues, is that it never worked to address the problem of unemployment.
The single biggest evaluation of the Job Training Partnership Act was done by the federal Department of Labor, which followed 20,000 people over four years and divided up the results by types of people and types of training. In three-quarters of the cases, they found no statistically significant impact whatsoever. For youth, ages 16 to 21, people who went through the program actually did worse than people who did not.
“Almost all federal job training programs for the last 20 years have been an almost complete and total failure,” Lafer says, “and more importantly, the government and both political parties know that the programs are a failure, and keep funding them and promoting them anyway, because it’s a kind of cheap political response to unemployment.”
In 1998, JTPA was renamed and revamped as the Workforce Investment Act. And in 1992, to help win passage for the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), President Bill Clinton and the Republican leadership threw in a more generous version of similar 1970s Trade Act training benefits for workers that would lose their jobs as plants moved to Mexico. Though they have different eligibility criteria and different benefit levels, all the programs have basically the same approach.
Their assumption, Lafer says, is that if only people had the skills, employers would hire them. “It’s a kind of paradoxical thing: on average, people with more education are better paid, and for any individual, it may make sense. And so every parent wants that for their kid, but if you look at the country as a whole, the total percentage of American jobs that require a college degree is between 25 and 30 percent, and no economist thinks it’s going to be more than that any time in our lifetimes. So the idea that if everybody got professional training, everybody would be earning professional wages is totally false.”
And in fact, Lafer says, there are already lots of very highly-trained people who can’t get decently-paid work.
“The number of jobs that are in the want ads is a tiny percentage of the number that need work. The labor market is like musical chairs: There are some jobs available, but the number of people who are in need of decently-paying jobs, over the period that I examined from 1984 to 1996, ranged between 7 to 1 and 20 to 1.”
Ironically, many of the skills employers say they need aren’t technical at all.
“You have employers all the time who say, ‘the schools are failing us. The kids these days don’t know how to work. And we can’t get anyone with the right skills.’ And you say ‘well what exactly are the skills that you’re missing?’ Almost no employer mentions technical occupational skills, and very few mention English and math. What almost all of them talk about is discipline and punctuality, and attitude and work ethic.”
Lafer says his answer is to ask how much they’re paying, and he’s not surprised to hear the biggest complaints about employability from the lowest-wage employers.
“Discipline and loyalty is not a ‘skill’ that you possess or don’t possess,” Lafer says. “It’s something that you choose to give to a job or not depending on the wages and conditions that are offered. So when the government comes in and says ‘we’re going to train people to be disciplined to be employable,’ what they’re saying is ‘we’re going to train people to get used to the idea that they don’t have any choice except to accept these low-wage jobs and not complain about it.'”
Lafer says he’s also deeply skeptical of “new era” rhetoric about business needing difficult-to-define skills like “teamwork,” “higher-order thinking,” and “problem-solving creativity.” Such skills are hard to measure or even describe, he says, and in many workplaces, computerization and automation are actually eliminating the need for any thinking at all.
Ultimately, Lafer thinks, job training programs may serve as a diversion for workers victimized by the economic system, because they suggest the cause and solution of unemployment and poverty are fundamentally non-political.
“If you have your eyes open and you look around in the last 20 years and you say ‘Why are people laid off? Why are wages falling for the majority of Americans?’ there are a lot of things you can see that are obvious – falling minimum wage, anti-unionism, export of jobs abroad, non-enforcement of overtime laws. The idea of job training is to convince people that they shouldn’t protest any of those. Instead of turning their anger towards government or big business, they should turn it towards themselves and focus on self-improvement.”
Education and training play a role in determining wages, but Lafer says they account for less than one-third of wage differences. And the shift from manufacturing to service employment has been a shift toward jobs that require higher education even though they offer lower wages than the ones they replaced.
Lafer says the truth is that the things that are more politically contested, like unionization, affirmative action, minimum wage and plant closing legislation, all have a bigger impact on wages than education. “On average, a male high school dropout would do three times better to organize a union in their workplace than to go back to school and get a GED in terms of its impact on earnings.”
Lafer says one of the best ways to combat unemployment and poverty would be to pass better labor laws.
“For the most part in America there’s not a problem of too few jobs. What there is a problem of is too few decently-paying jobs. And a lot of those jobs, there’s enough profit that the companies are making that they could afford to be better paying, but they pay as little as they can get away with. About 13 percent of American workers are organized into unions now, but there’s another 30 or 40 percent who say in polls that they would like to have a union in their workplace if they could. Under current labor law, where companies are more or less free to fire union activists at will and have more or less no punishment for it, those 30 or 40 percent of Americans are going to have a hard time getting their wish realized.”
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