Some years ago when I was President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), I challenged a representative of one of our larger members to explain why his company was sending so many jobs overseas. "Because," he replied with some heat, "the young people coming out of our public schools today cannot pass a reading test, a writing test or a math test."
There was more than a little exaggeration in that comment, but it reflects an attitude I encountered many times during my years with the NAM. In every survey of NAM members we conducted when I was there, a majority of respondents inevitably replied that finding qualified job applicants was one of their biggest headaches. Workers in modern manufacturing must be deft with math and science. They need to know how to read blueprints and program computers. But these skills are sorely lacking among the unemployed.
There is a great debate in Washington and across the nation about the economy, and in particular what we must do to create more jobs. We will not get the economy growing again, and will not restore consumer confidence, until we put millions of the employed back to work. But how? Most of the discussion centers on general policies such as payroll taxes, regulations, infrastructure and investment - the presumption being that if we support business, business will create jobs. But business is already rolling in cash and many of the jobs business is creating are overseas. Clearly something else is needed.
I suggest a cooperative program, jointly funded by government and business, to train unemployed workers for specific jobs that need filling now. There are a variety of programs out there providing training to the unemployed, and many of them are very good, but they rarely include a direct transition from training to employment. Too often, unemployed workers go through these programs only to discover there are few if any opportunities for them, even with their newly-acquired skills.
I have heard many small manufacturers complain that these training programs, usually run in conjunction with community colleges, are not in synch with real world workplace needs. Give us that training money, they say, and we will train applicants to do the jobs and then put them directly to work.
I think that is worth a try - at least as part of a more comprehensive job creation program. The program should be jointly funded by a foundation or government grant, plus money from participating businesses. The key ingredient should be employers with jobs that need filling who will pledge to provide employment to people who complete their training programs successfully. The employers will not be able to complain about the training because they will be the ones providing it. They will get to know the workers personally, and whether or not they are qualified to do the jobs. Based on my own experience at the NAM, I believe a program like this could bring a significant number of people into the work force in a relatively short period of time.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute.