Saturday, June 11, 2011

Learn to Be Better at the Job You Don't Have

I will be posting a much more in-depth commentary on a related topic later on, but I've just heard about some news related to labor policy, which I'd like to address first. President Obama announced today that a new initiative in "winning the future" will be to invest in providing college students with training for manufacturing jobs. That spurs me to ask one question as loudly and vociferously as possible: Why college students?

If we believe that manufacturing jobs will help to turn the recession around, what benefit is to be gained from drawing candidates for those new jobs from among a pool of college-educated workers? Doesn't that background specifically make them differently qualified? Having formal education in the fields of physics or mechanical engineering might help you to better understand the processes and machinery involved in making industrial or consumer goods, but I don't see how it helps you to actually do a better job of working on the line, assembling those products, and running that machinery. Neither do I see how saddling future manufacturing laborers with student loan debt will help to ease their financial burden once those jobs come to contribute to an economic recovery.

Frankly, even if the government's investment was channeled into trade schools rather than community colleges, how does that actually help? This constant, unquestioned emphasis on both job training and college education relies on what is to me an obviously false premise: that the problems facing nine to twenty percent of American workers today is not a lack of available jobs, but a lack of qualifications among the labor force. The government seems to believe, against evidence and common sense, that increasing training and education will cause jobs befitting those qualifications to appear out of the ether.

Why does labor policy consistently place the burden of future recovery on the worker rather than the industry, those who are struggling rather than those who merely have reduced profit margins, the individual rather than the economy as a whole?

The Department of Labor recently reported that manufacturing jobs were cut in May. In light of that, on what is the government basing the assertion that increased manufacturing will spur the economy in coming months and years? What are they doing to make that happen, other than telling people "Get ready - we promise this is what you're going to be doing after you graduate"?

Manufacturing jobs, if I'm not mistaken, tend to be blue collar labor. And like much blue collar labor, and indeed like many jobs in sales and office work and other traditionally white collar positions, the ability to do the job effectively relies largely on on-the-job training. No degree program can teach you the exact skill set you'll need for a specific job, and unless in-depth background knowledge is essential for a particular career path, acquiring a degree is often just a waste of time and money.

But again, Obama and the government as a whole seem to think the reason there are so few manufacturing jobs is not that the industries are failing in the U.S. or outsourcing their labor to cheap foreign workers, but because employers are sitting in their offices, pouting that nobody in America has the training to do the jobs that they'd so desperately like to fill. But what I think is that if those jobs existed in greater numbers, and if there were incentives for employers to keep them in the United States, manufacturers would hire whomever demonstrated the overall competence and trainability to be able to perform the needed tasks.

As a matter of fact, that seems obvious to me. But I don't see labor policy ever developing to reflect that. I think we'll go on delaying people's entry into the labor market by pushing them through higher levels of education while waiting either for the economy to turn around on its own or for a greater collapse to drive us to a breaking point.

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