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Upgrading Workforce Skills Requires Industry Investment in Government

July 14, 2020

NYTimes writer Steve Lohr’s article on the pandemic’s impact on apprenticeships makes one point that, I believe, should have been the sole focal point of the entire article: If we ever hope to improve the skill level of the workforce, Greater Government Investment is Needed

At the beginning of the article Lohr drives this point home forcefully, quoting David Autor, M.I.T labor economist’s assertion that we need a national Marshall Plan for retraining. He follows that illustrations of how the government failed to follow through on short term investments in job training in response to the Great Recession and ends that introductory section of the article with this:

“The Great Recession was a lost opportunity,” said Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard University. “Now, are we going to take this moment to help low-wage workers move into the middle class and give them skills to thrive? Or are they just going to go back to low-wage jobs that are dead ends?”

Lohr then describes our country’s unwillingness to invest in job training:

Job training in America has often been ineffective, with programs shaped by local politics and money spent according to the number of people in courses rather than hiring outcomes. The United States also spends less than other nations on government employment, training and other labor services. As a percentage of economic activity, Canada spends three times as much, Germany about six times more and Scandinavian countries up to more than 12 times as much, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Yet after underscoring the disjointed nature of job training as a failing, he cites “…encouraging pockets of success in America” and offers several examples of how individuals were able to pull themselves up to higher paying jobs through individual gumption. These stories, I believe, implicitly reinforce the notion that the federal government’s role can remain minimal and the current method of disjointed programming is acceptable. He then offers this description of the Trump administration’s “vision” for job training:

The Trump administration is an enthusiastic proponent of expanding the apprenticeship concept beyond the construction and building trades. In March, the Labor Department announced Industry Recognized Apprenticeship Programs to foster apprenticeships in sectors like technology and health care. As a first step, it has called on businesses to form standards-setting bodies for apprenticeships in their industries.

Ivanka Trump, a chair of the administration’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, is an advocate for broadening apprenticeship opportunities and making Pell grants, for low-income students, available for noncollege skills training and job certification programs.

The administration sees the government’s role as working with the business community and ensuring that the public system of state and local work force boards, which receive federal funding, are attuned to hiring demands of the private sector.

“Re-skilling very much needs to come from business,” said John Pallasch, assistant secretary for employment and training at the Labor Department.

Companies, labor experts say, will need to increase their investment in enhancing the skills of their own workers. Analysts say the overall trend has been stagnant or declining for years.

I agree that businesses need to drive the “re-skilling” of the workforce and that the first step is for these businesses to form standards-setting bodies for apprenticeships in their industries. But it is naive to think that businesses will voluntarily “increase their investment in enhancing the skills of their own workers”, especially if the notion of shareholder primacy prevails.

Based on Lohr’s concluding paragraph I sense that he, too, realizes that voluntary investment in workforce skills is unlikely and, in the end, only the FEDERAL government can lead:

“There are various ways to (improve the skill levels of workers), but ultimately you are going to need public investment,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the Digital Economy Lab at Stanford University. “Training is not something that can be just left to the private sector.”

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