So Many Jobs, So Why So Many Unemployed?


The national unemployment rate was only 4.4 percent in August, but around 7 million prime-age men are not working but could, and women's participation in the workforce has also dropped from 10 years ago. With 6.2 million open jobs in the United States, how does this happen?

One explanation for the large number of people not working these days is the “skills gap” - the mismatch between what employers need and what the out-of-work possess - but critics say that's just a way to blame the workers. However, if you can't do math, read technical manuals, or solve complex problems, you're probably not that employable.

So would federal job training programs help?

An energetic federal approach can seem particularly enticing at this moment given that the tangled roots of our predicament—there are arguments that opioids, video games, immigration, Americans’ unwillingness to relocate, the abuse of disability programs, and a lack of entrepreneurialism all contribute to our work problems—seem to call for comprehensive intervention.

One problem, however, says Andy Smarick , president of the Maryland State Board of Education: For all the talk in Washington about supporting apprenticeship and vocational training, coming from both sides of the aisle, the federal government has a shaky track record of helping people get well-trained.

Instead, he suggests the federal government pushing its assistance down to let local officials figure out the best use.

The major federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 that replaced No Child Left Behind, offers some lessons. It loosened rules and let states experiment with new accountability systems. This freedom helped foster fresh thinking about vocational training. Under ESSA, states have to submit plans for how they will use federal dollars and comply with the law. An analysis by Education Strategy Group and Advance CTE found that of the 17 states to submit plans to Washington this spring, 11 are proposing approaches that link high school studies to careers—giving students credit for earning an industry-recognized credential, for example, or for passing the military’s entrance exam.

Decentralization can equally help empower individuals. Funding could be handed directly to those seeking training, and the tax code can be tweaked to encourage employers to support employees’ continuing education. Equally workers should be able to take federal student-aid dollars to a wider array of providers (such as a boot camp that teaches coding or a community-based group offering re-skilling courses) instead of relying on the traditional higher-education institutions.

Smarick says that while Trump seems to be for large, central initiatives for ideas like apprenticeships, that will "ossify" other programs.

Smarick concludes that thinking globally and acting locally can only produce better outcomes.

We’re in an era of deep frustration with Beltway cronyism, elites, and administrative-state bossiness, not to mention swirling social and economic change and federal budget deficits. Handing power to state and local governments, individuals, employers, and an array of civil society entities is the right course of action for our career-education challenge. It might even be the playbook for a host of other domestic policy challenges.

Comments (1)
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Mike Rowe has some excellent insight into the idea of the "skills gap."

"What people talk about why the skills gap exists, it's almost -- how can it not exist? We took vo-tech (vocational-technology) out of high school, at the same time we told an entire generation that their best hope for success was a four-year degree."