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Bush's unemployment blame-shift

Published Aug. 27, 2005

For those who follow employment policy, it was no surprise that President Bush's State of the Union address called for more job training as the solution to unemployment. For 20 years, every jobs crisis _ whether inner-city poverty, jobs lost due to the North American Free Trade Agreement or loggers put out of work by the spotted owl _ has been met with calls for retraining.

Whatever the problem, it seems, job training is the answer.

The trouble is, it doesn't work, and the government knows it. The most comprehensive evaluation of training programs, conducted by the Department of Labor, followed 20,000 people over four years. For the vast majority, the government concluded that training made no difference whatsoever.

People got the same kind of jobs whether or not they'd been through the program. The single most successful group was adult women. But here's what it means to be the single most successful group: Those who did not go through training ended up making 47 percent of the poverty line, and those who did made 54 percent of the poverty line.

It's tempting to think that these meager results are due to mismanagement in one program. However, every training program reports similar anemic outcomes, whether publicly or privately run, for welfare recipients, high school dropouts or laid-off union workers. Indeed, in studying more than 40 years of job training policy, I have not seen one program that, on average, enabled its participants to earn their way out of poverty.

Why doesn't training work? First, there simply are not enough decent-paying jobs. Any individual may benefit from education, but training by itself does not create more jobs.

Second, outside of the professional job market, most jobs just do not require much in the way of sophisticated training. Fully two-thirds of American jobs are in occupations that do not require a college degree.

This leads to the obvious question: training for what? The president insists that "much of our job growth will be found in high-skilled fields . . . " But the biggest-growing occupations are jobs in fast-food preparation, customer service, retail and security. Of the 25 occupations projected to add the most positions between 2000 and 2010, more than two-thirds can be learned in a few days of on-the-job training. And almost half pay wages near the poverty line.

The truth is that more technology jobs are being sent out of the country than are being created for Americans, with the industry estimating that one-tenth of all high-tech jobs will be exported to places such as India by the end of 2004.

These facts aren't secret; most of them come from the government. So if the president knows there are not enough jobs, why is he trumpeting training as the answer to unemployment?

Simple. It's a way of shifting responsibility away from the administration _ and its corporate donors _ and suggesting instead that workers have themselves to blame for their misfortune. If only they had the right skills, Bush implies, they wouldn't be facing the crushing reality of joblessness.

Democrats have accused Bush of hypocrisy for promoting training after cutting the training budget for three years. And indeed, the president's new $250-million initiative would serve less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the 8.5-million Americans currently unemployed. But the hypocrisy is not that Bush is spending too little. It's that he's promoting training at all when he knows that it can't solve the problem.

There are any number of things the president could do that would help workers more. He could demand a raise in the minimum wage, helping millions escape poverty. He could make it easier for workers to unionize; union workers make roughly 25 percent more than nonunion workers in the same occupations and industries. Or he could discourage American companies from laying off American workers and moving jobs overseas.

The president is doing none of these.

In this context, to promote training in order to make workers think that unemployment is their own fault is a cruel joke on the millions of American families struggling to make it through hard times. They deserve better.

Gordon Lafer is an associate professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center and author of The Job Training Charade.

Special to the Los Angeles Times