Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jobless Experiences Contradict Political Claims

On Monday, President Obama hosted a video conference to answer questions submitted online and speak directly to a small group of voters and students. During the chat, a Fort Worth, Texas woman named Jennifer Weddel shared her husband’s personal story and used it to challenge the president on the nation’s employment situation. Her husband is a semiconductor engineer and has not been able to find permanent, full-time work in three years.

Weddel evidently recognizes this situation as contradicting the president’s claims about the availability of skilled labor jobs within American companies, but those same claims were precisely the response that Obama offered. He insisted that there is a great deal of demand for positions like those for which Weddel’s husband is qualified, and he reiterated the comments that he had made in the State of the Union Address to the effect that American high-tech companies want to hire American workers but cannot find enough of them with the appropriate skill sets. Furthermore, Obama offered to circulate the unemployed engineer’s resume among the companies that had been giving him that information.

Stories like this are all too familiar to me, and indeed to many of us. They illustrate the often stark, sometimes incredible differences between what private individuals experience and what persons and aggregates of persons claim from a position once-removed. There is clearly tension between Weddel’s story and the president’s claims. In this, it has to be that someone is disingenuous or misinformed.

Anecdotal evidence is unreliable in making general claims, but it is also the foundation for statistical data. Obama’s claims are based on anecdote, as well, provided to him by industry executives rather than low-level workers. At the same time, one surely need not look far to find other stories that parallel Weddel’s. Are those workers struggling because of some spectacular personal failing in their job search strategies? Conversely, are companies failing to connect with these workers because of deficiencies in their recruitment? If either or both of these explanations are entirely at fault, it’s a shame that the entire body of skilled laborers can’t channel their resumes through the White House.

I’m much more inclined to believe, though, that there are further explanations. For instance, perhaps the president’s industry contacts are not completely in earnest when they say that they want to hire American workers but can’t find them. That claim can be taken in different ways, one of which is that companies can’t find engineers whom they can hire for wages low enough to make it economically feasible for them to hire Americans over foreign workers. This might partly account for why according to figures utilized in last year’s Georgetown University study, of college graduates who majored in engineering, only thirty-two percent actually work in engineering. For many of those graduates, it may be economically preferable to take jobs that are outside of or only peripherally related to their field.

It seems to me that the president privileges the most optimistic interpretation of industry claims because he has been one of the most vocal supporters of the uncharacteristically simplistic assertion that whatever our problems are, more formal education will solve them. And the more fundamental assumption behind that thinking is that if one is qualified for a given type of job, he gets it. That too flies in the face of the lived experiences of many of the unemployed and underemployed (and those who, like me, are necessarily self-employed).

The president’s response to Mrs. Weddel could be seen as implying disbelief – a failure to comprehend why someone who purportedly has the skills necessary to be employed in a particular field hasn’t received a suitable offer. And the president should feel confused, because the great mass of citizens who are jostling for frightfully scarce positions feel that way with every resume that vanishes into the ether. But I worry that President Obama will not share in that feeling for long, because when his endorsement secures Weddel’s husband a job, it will be all too easy to believe that the only reason it took so long was because he hadn’t looked in the right place before. But that convenient explanation will do little good for engineer that I met who was working in a local cafĂ©, or any of the unemployed lawyers and teachers I’ve known, all of whom have been told, frequently and with sincerity, that the jobs are out there.

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