Friday, May 1, 2009

The Skills Crisis and Job Training

The myth of a skills crisis among workers sure has gained steam among municipal leaders, the business community, and even some (so-called) academics. Although, in reality, this phenomenon is more of an urban legend. As Marc Levine [a former employer], professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, reports in a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article, “Over the next decade the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the greatest job growth in occupations requiring high school education and short-term, on-the-job training.” According to the Census Bureau, 80 percent of the City of Milwaukee population has at least a high school education. The total number for the U.S. is 84 percent.

Gordon Lafer, associate professor at the University of Oregon, in his expansive and definitive work on job training, The Job Training Charade, states, “Job training has served primarily as a form of political diversion. At both the federal and local levels of government, the rhetoric of job training has encouraged a discourse about poverty and unemployment which minimizes the public’s expectations of government. If poverty were viewed largely as the result of a shortage of jobs, and the government were held responsible as employer of last resort, scores of mayors and governors would have been thrown out of office in response to the dislocations of the past two decades. By instead promoting a view of poverty as largely rooted in the educational, cultural, and moral failings of poor communities, the assumptions underlying training policy suggest that the government could not be expected to provide more than marginal assistance toward solving this problem.” (212)

The market and the government are doing all they can or are able to do. The heart of the problem is the motivation, laziness, and inherent inabilities of poor people. Or some variation of this is what job training proponents would like us to believe.

As noted in this review of Gordon Lafer’s work, “The commonsense idea that there are plenty of jobs to go around if only the unemployed and the poor had the motivation and the skills to fill them…The number of decently-paid jobs that were available over the last twenty years has never been more than a fraction of the number needed to raise the poor beyond the poverty level…Except for certain professional positions that require specialized and highly controlled education and that compromise a very small portion of the labor market, variables such as gender, age, race, and whether or not workers are unionized, are more important determinants of the levels of employment and wages than are the levels of education.”

David Howell, professor at Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy, observes, “In short, employers in the 1980s responded to increased competitive pressures by taking a low-road human resource strategy, one aimed above all at reducing current labor costs…In a great many industries, workers learned new skills to work with more advanced production technologies – but their higher productivity was not reflected in higher wages…In the 1980s, higher skills have simply not led to higher wages. In industry after industry, average educational attainment rose while wages fell.”

The disappearance of good-paying jobs has more to do with a decrease in collective bargaining (unionization) and anti-worker public policy initiatives rather than a lack of skills in the workforce.

Michael Handel, associate professor of sociology and Northeastern University, finds, “There is little evidence of absolute declines in cognitive or hard skills in the United States or generally poor performance relative to other advanced industrialized countries." (Annual Review of Sociology, Jan. 2003)

For Further Reading:
Bush’s Call For Job Training: Cruel Joke on Unemployed
Is There A Skills Crisis?
Worker Skills and Job Requirements: Is There a Mismatch?

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