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Labor Day 2013: Retooling Our Labor Force

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Labor Day is upon us once again and once again the picture for new entrants to the labor force is dismal if they do not possess a tool kit of advanced skills. Sluggish job creation lags far behind other economic indicators. While corporate profits are inspiring, the GDP is forging ahead and the stock market has hit all-time highs, we still have 7.4 percent unemployment. Even that understates the reality of millions of workers who are underemployed or have dropped out of the work force completely.

In other words, the one single economic indicator that matters most is the most troubling. The media is filled with stories of young people leaving college and moving back in with Mom and Dad because they cannot find productive places in our economy. The most solemn responsibility our business, civic and government leaders bear is to convey the promise of a better future to the next generation. We are failing this test.

A major factor, as I have often lamented, is the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, mainly low skill jobs that in years past were a mainstay of our job market. Those low skill jobs were a ticket into the middle class for millions, but they have gone away and few of them are coming back. To be sure, manufacturing today is ready to hire many thousands more workers, but those jobs require advanced skills and training. The Germans and the Japanese have long had in place solid programs for training bright young people for high skilled jobs in manufacturing. Their success as exporters is largely a reflection of their high caliber work forces. We have some excellent private sector training programs, such as the Manufacturing Institute's superb Dream It! Do It! program, but nothing comparable to what the Germans and Japanese have.

Even outside of manufacturing, there remains a huge gap between the obsolete skills many Americans have and the skills in advanced technology that are needed. Advancing technology is changing the way both business and government operates at an accelerating rate of speed. The digital revolution, like the industrial revolution, is spurring massive dislocations in the labor force. The end result will be a more prosperous society, but many people are struggling to adapt to the change. Even the most intuitive career counselors cannot say with certainty where the good jobs of the future will be though there will always be great opportunities in manufacturing.

One of the more painful and discouraging aspects of the unemployment challenge is the reluctance of many employers to even consider hiring people who have been out of work for a long time. There is a widespread perception that such people must have some critical defect. Where this nonsense came from God only knows, but it is wrongheaded and debilitating for many good people as well as our economy.

While the issues are complex, there is no question that employers can do a better job of helping unemployed people who want regular jobs to find them; helping them acquire the skills they need to get good jobs; setting up a coordinated nationwide training program to prepare young people for careers in manufacturing; and perhaps launching a campaign against discrimination against the long-term unemployed. In sum, employers should provide more leadership for retooling our labor force.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as president of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements.