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The Big Money: Maybe it's job retraining that needs to be retooled

Worker shortages are perennial in the medical field, despite billions spent by federal and state governments to retrain the unemployed.
Worker shortages are perennial in the medical field, despite billions spent by federal and state governments to retrain the unemployed. (Gregory Smith/associated Press)
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Unemployed people aren't capable enough to be retrained. With approximately 17 million people out of work, this is true for a fraction. Some conservative observers have argued that nearly all unemployment can be blamed on personal shortcomings. This misanthropic theory may provide emotional satisfaction for some, but it's clearly too unverifiable to have real analytical value.

There's a geography gap. Economists have noted that while capital and physical goods are easily moved from stagnant to productive places, people are much less so. Americans relocate from town to town more readily than most nationalities. But in the short term, it's not easy for unemployed people to move to where jobs might be.

There's a gender gap. Rationally, any well-paying job should be attractive to any needy worker. But reality is usually messier. As noted above, the nation has for decades suffered from a shortage of nurses. Maybe today plenty of young men are willing to enter nursing as a career. But do men in their 40s and 50s really want to put in the training to switch to a historically female job? And if gender issues keep otherwise qualified people from taking well-paying jobs, it may be a two-way street: Engineering, IT and software development are stubbornly male-dominated fields.

Our training is really lousy. This seems like an obvious culprit, except that all the way down the line, the incentives appear intact. Governments and business leaders want unemployment to go down; community colleges want federal grants to provide workplace training; companies want skilled employees; and unemployed workers want jobs that pay well. So the problem shouldn't be an inability to teach skills.

But maybe it is, and if so, that means that our decades-long reliance on worker retraining is misplaced. And yet it seems irresponsible to give up on the idea of teaching adults new skills. Perhaps we need a thorough revamping of what we are teaching. But who will retrain the retrainers?

-- The Big Money

Ledbetter is editor of The Big Money and of "The Great Depression: A Diary."


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