Pinchuk, of Snap-on, says that the federal government is beginning to grasp the skills problem, noting that President Obama recently announced a new public-private partnership in vocational programs. But with the federal budget under assault, Perkins Grants for technical schools are being cut. “The technology may be moving faster than the schools can keep up with it,” Pinchuk says. “What I don’t see from the federal government is an identification of technical education with reviving the middle class.”
As policymakers grapple with this problem, one question is whether the federal government is equipped to identify the kind of skills that businesses will need just over the horizon. On Capitol Hill, Murray and other lawmakers are aiming at an enterprise-zone concept under the Workforce Investment Act reauthorization. They want workforce boards to coalesce around local needs so that schools, employment offices, and employers are all telling job candidates about available jobs and how to get them. “We’re a very diverse country, and what works for my region—Boeing jobs, aerospace jobs, marine industry—may not be what works for Reno, Nevada, which has the hospitality industry,” Murray said.
DOING MORE WITH LESS
Obama, heading into an election year, doesn’t have many tools left to spur a surge in the economy before the November 2012 election. With Washington’s agenda dominated by the budget-cutting zealots of the tea party, another big economic stimulus is out of the question. All the president can possibly do is whittle away at the edges of that 9.2 percent, and some critics question whether his administration is even doing a good job of that. Andrew Levin, who ran a highly praised job program at Michigan’s Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth Department, calls federal job-training programs “a patchwork of overlapping and even conflicting statutes” that variously aim money at dislocated workers, adult education, youth training, and rehabilitation. Some programs date back to the 1930s. “It doesn’t make for a coherent system,” he says.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in an interview with National Journal, boasted about the administration’s new $1 billion vo-tech program. But even he admitted that “we’ve definitely backed off” from vocational training and that there has been no “systematic” effort to relaunch such programs. Beyond that, “too many schools today are still preparing students for jobs from 40 to 50 years ago,” he says. It’s not entirely the federal government’s fault: Many Americans resist a renewed focus on technical and vocational schools.
College “pulled some of the most talented people away from technical schools.” —Jeffrey Joerres, Manpower Inc.
Joerres, the chief executive at Manpower, said that much of the problem stems from Americans’ outsized love for traditional college education. “It started in the 1970s, when we sent everyone to college,” he says. “It pulled some of the most talented people away from technical schools. The 25 percent of the population that would have gone to technical school and made one helluva an electrician moved to the low end of the universities.” Others agree. “We have these siloed ways of approaching career guidance and counseling,” said Andy Van Kleunen, executive director of the National Skills Coalition, an advocacy group that pushes for more training. High school guidance counselors tell every kid to go to college. Colleges tend to steer students toward other collegiate-oriented programs. Government job-training programs have, at best, a faint voice in this process.
Economists say that the best way to train adults for today’s job market is to offer basic education along with hands-on skills training, which is what Siemens is trying to do. Manufacturers are frustrated that schools are giving short shrift to viable technical career paths. Gardner Carrick, director of strategic initiatives for the Manufacturing Institute, the job-training wing of the National Association of Manufacturers, cited large numbers of both interested young people and career opportunities. “The tech careers, people who are able to build stuff, we think the interest is out there,” Carrick said. “They lack the ability to be able to pursue them.”
Critics say that Duncan is behind the curve and continues to speak in maddening generalities about a problem that, increasingly, requires specific solutions. “The people around Duncan are left over from previous administrations. All they can talk about is standardized testing and charter schools,” says Margaret McKenna, a former Education Department official who is now president of the Wal-Mart Foundation.
Some federal money is going into new ideas. At Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin, grants under the Workforce Investment Act help to run “boot camps” for employers looking for skilled workers. Students come away with national credentials for a variety of industrial fields. But such efforts are fairly meager. Despite a push to insert a new business viewpoint into federal job training, Labor Department officials have tended to treat such programs more like unemployment and welfare programs. When it came to matching workers with jobs, the programs did little more than act as intermediaries in the labor-market exchange.
“It continued to be a very large bureaucracy that spent a lot of money essentially on paying staff and not paying for job training,” Carrick said. Holzer complains, “Community colleges are divorced from the workforce. Students often can’t get into the technical courses offered by community colleges, because they’re oversubscribed.”
Sophisticated technical training is expensive. “It costs more per head to train somebody in a machining lab with new equipment that has to be changed every few years, versus somebody in an English literature course,” Van Kleunen said. But given Washington’s drive to slash spending, don’t expect more money from Congress any time soon. Indeed, House and Senate Republicans are even balking at funding Trade Adjustment Assistance, a long-standing program that helps factory workers who lose their jobs as a result of trade agreements.
Siemens and other employers aren’t waiting. “We’re just not finding the people we need out in the market,” Spiegel says. “We need to create them.”
This article appears in the July 30, 2011, edition of National Journal.