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What Happened to the Jobs?

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

So where are the jobs?  Job creation has basically flattened over the past two months -- very bad news, as unemployment exceeds 9 percent.

The Democrats' economic stimulus was inadequate, and it's mostly over. And the Republicans' prescription of more tax cuts is largely hogwash, given already historically low tax rates and the fact that American corporations are already sitting on mountains of cash and not using the money to hire Americans. 

The years following the George W. Bush tax cuts were the worst for job growth in a long time. Only 3 million jobs were created in the eight Bush years, versus 23.1 million during the Clinton administration. In fairness to George W., other trends hurting U.S. job creation were accelerating and -- President Obama's critics take note -- continue today. Globalization encourages U.S. companies to lay off Americans and find cheaper labor in other countries. And automation lets U.S. factories make the same amount of stuff with far fewer people. These processes can't be stopped.

But Germany and other high-wage countries are doing just fine employment-wise, because they pay scrupulous attention to preparing young people for the jobs there are. The Bush years were pretty dismal in that respect, coasting on a housing bubble that wove an illusion of prosperity.

Real estate speculation pushed house prices higher, egging people to buy more expensive real estate on borrowed money. As interest rates were kept low, big mortgages went flying out the door. The result was jobs selling houses, building houses and lending for houses.  Homebuyers cashed out their fat equity and took the money to the mall, creating new positions in retailing and building new retailing. When the music stopped, those jobs vanished.

Disheartening now is how little attention Obama has paid to preparing the most vulnerable young workers, those without college degrees, for decent jobs. For instance, the administration seeks to cut 20 percent out of vocational and technical education in high schools and community colleges.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan will argue that Obama wants to hike overall education spending by 11 percent: Money for vocational training is being sacrificed to help more people go to college, said to be the ticket for employment in the 21st century. Some further argue that rapid changes in required job skills will make much vocational and technical training outmoded. But there is more to it than that.

Currently, two out of three American kids don't go to college. Some are quite smart but not suited for academics. Vocational training keeps many would-be dropouts in high school. It gets them a job with middle-class wages.

And if that job goes away, what we have left is a mature worker with a record of employment, not some idle 30-something living with his mother. In any case, globalization hits college grads, as well. Ask any highly trained computer programmer whose job just moved to India or Romania.

America must be the land of third and fourth chances. Workers whose practical training in electronics becomes outdated can later attain another technical skill or pursue a college education. Or a college grad might want to learn a building trade. (I know one who runs a very successful carpentry shop.)

So we should stop thinking about vocational training and college as two separate paths veering off in entirely different directions. But rather than alter that perception, the Obama administration seems to be enforcing it.

Clearly, the great American job machine no longer goes on automatic pilot. Government must help keep it running through these tough times -- and ensure that Americans are ready for 21st century tasks. This is one kind of spending we dare not cut.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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