It should not be a shock that President Obama sees workers as a collective instead of individuals pursuing goals and careers. He has a habit of viewing things from the left. Somewhere below his Oval Office perch employees fill slots in an economy he still wants to engineer. This was painfully evident in a talk about skills training at a community college in Michigan. The president used Government Motors and auto industry jobs as an example of his successful middle class economics strategy:
So we placed our bets on American businesses and American workers, and that bet is paying off. Michigan is coming back. America is coming back. (Applause.) Detroit is coming back, too. 1
Detroit also went bankrupt, but the stump is not the place to talk about that. Instead, the vision for working Americans involves employer and community college-trained employees backed by unions with the power to coerce higher wages:
Part of what gives workers more leverage to get higher pay when the company is making a lot of money is, is that they’ve got a union behind them. (Applause.)2
Is a career in this country about a government free ride for college and a union bartering for your pay?
Skills training is for jobs, not careers
As part of his goal to add two more years to the secondary school curriculum (see: Affordable College: Higher Education Made Dumber), the president promised a community college audience that skills training is the path to success:
This becomes the kind of place where you can earn the skills you need to start a great career right away.3
That all depends on your definition of “skills” and a “great career.” If it means learning specific skills for Obama-approved industries, skills training is bad for your career. The next time the economy comes crashing down you may find yourself unemployed. That’s what happened to millions of Americans during the recession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that even parts of the manufacturing sector that added jobs early in the downturn could not sustain their gains. Manufacturing as a whole shed two million jobs from 2007-2009.4
All the targeted skills training in the world won’t save you when you find yourself in the middle of a declining industry. That’s where transferable skills acquired from experience and a broad-based education make a difference. In all honesty, though, the skills training agenda isn’t about career paths or progress. It is about giving Americans skills to keep them employable.
Does that skill set include the ability to read and write?
Front-line workers: the real truth about Obama’s skills training
The sales pitch sounds good: empowering workers, guaranteeing a college education, skills training, higher wages.5 There’s a problem that gums up the works, though, and it’s not an easy one to solve.
As part of the Upskill Initiative, the White House added basic skills to the mix that aren’t really job skills at all. They are part of primary and secondary public education:
Most adults with low skill levels are working: There are 36 million adults in the United States who score below Level 2 on OECD’s international literacy assessment, meaning that they cannot compare and contrast information or integrate multiple pieces of information.6
The deception lies in claiming employers should be responsible for raising wages by offering training that falls outside of the skills needed to do a job. Employment is about helping a company succeed. It is not about making up for literacy skills schools should teach and employees should be responsible for learning. Skills training may provide an easy excuse for stagnant wages and for government spending to raise the standard of living for low-wage workers, but it will not create careers:
The President has laid out an agenda designed to increase wages for workers across the country, through steps that range from providing tax relief to working families, increasing the minimum wage, improving access to higher education and investing in areas that support well-paying jobs like infrastructure, research and clean energy.7
Too late for skills training, upskilling to save low-wage careers
We will always have workers with nowhere to go because of their lack of education. There are places for them in the economy, but all the initiatives White House bright bulbs can dream up are not going to empower low-wage employees who didn’t earn high school diplomas or learn basic literacy skills. Unions might be able to force more pay and politicians may be able to bully higher minimum wages, but absent the grace of others most will be stuck right where they are, especially if their command of the English language is marginal. Much as it hurts, that’s how things work in our economy.
Skills training on the job or at a community college may get you a better job. It might even get you a job that pays well, but it won’t bring you a career. What it brings is what the Obama administration believes workers deserve and nothing more.
What is so destructive about White House job training rhetoric is that those who haven’t entered the labor force yet are being told that someone else is responsible for their education, career preparation, and compensation. That’s a fundamental shift in perception about how our economy works and the chief falsehood behind Obama’s plans for 21st century jobs.
Ambition, not the government, is the driving force behind our economy. The government may be able to help make Americans employable through the public school system, but we should not dress up functional illiteracy in the workplace and dump the responsibility on employers to make up the deficit by calling it skills training or upskilling. Taxpayers should not have to take up the slack by providing free college, either. Being employable and valuable to the economy is the responsibility of the individual. Accepting that responsibility and striving to achieve it no matter what is the difference between pursuing a career and just holding a job.