Jobs. It's the word on the tip of the tongue of every politician, pundit, blogger and Beltway insider. But talk is cheap. With unemployment at 9.1 percent and both parties seemingly more focused on an election 14 months away, the most powerful man in the world is appearing this week at town halls in Silicon Valley with hip and innovative companies like LinkedIn -- ostensibly to demonstrate his fresh thinking on this critical subject. But in reality, he's going old school and drawing on the playbook of long-forgotten predecessor, President William Henry Harrison.
Harrison inspired the public with a whopping two-hour speech in the cold rain at his inauguration -- and then died a month later without accomplishing one thing. President Obama's linguistic "style over substance" approach has been honed for the 21st century, but he has a strikingly similar 19th century approach to leadership.
Just like his $787 billion stimulus, Obama's jobs plan was supposed to be a game changer but is landing with a thud. Extending jobless benefits, increasing job retraining and payroll tax cuts are not only old ideas, but proven failures. Solutions require more than just shifting money around. Solutions require adapting to a changing environment and a vision for the future. Solutions require new leadership.
And that's why it's particularly ironic that Obama is trying to sell Silicon Valley on an uninspired jobs plan that completely ignores the obvious opportunity in the tech talent shortage. Computer science majors get very impressive salaries, bonuses and perks right out of school but the talent pool is thin and employers are forced to look abroad. Geeks like Steve Jobs, Mark Cuban and George Lucas rule the nation's music, sports, movies and cultural worlds but can't find Americans willing to follow their lead.
Another talent shortage -- in nursing -- borders on crisis. There are hundreds of thousands of nursing jobs currently unfilled and it's only getting worse, possibly reaching as many as 500,000 by 2025 in spite of Obama's much-touted success in the health care system overhaul.
One in 11 Americans are unemployed and there are hundreds of thousands of solid unfilled jobs, so why is Washington doing nothing? Maybe it's the union leaders whispering in his ear, or a general distrust of corporations, but the President seems fearful and unable to connect with the private sector in creating -- not just talking about -- solutions. He chooses to address the symptoms (underskilled workers) rather than the cause (an inadequate education system) -- condemning the United States' workforce to perpetual mediocrity.
A centerpiece of the jobs plan -- freeing up money to hire more teachers -- is a weak attempt to appease liberal education advocates who railed against the No Child Left Behind program. No one wants to say it, but our educational system is broken. It's time to stop throwing good money after bad. Private solutions must lead the way.
The President should create a coalition of for-profit educational, technical and healthcare institutions to rapidly create a pipeline for feeding web and social media companies with fresh blood and hospitals with qualified nurses. The for-profit educational world has great growth potential and will give the U.S. a great advantage in competing with China and India. Instead of regulating them out of existence, the President should be trying to work with them. The Education Department's new regulations on the industry were delayed by a year because of 90,000 comments to a draft proposal -- a clear sign that people want action, not reaction.
The Obama Administration should also increase the H1B cap for foreign worker visas, but create a sunset date for the cap. In May, Microsoft executives testified at a Senate hearing that they have nearly 5,000 unfilled positions. These are just a few of the many jobs that need to be filled but can't be by Americans now. Letting this shortage continue only hurts America's long-term growth prospects and pushes jobs overseas -- permanently. By raising the cap now for a five-year window, we can ease the shortage and give time for the American talent pool to develop.
It's naïve to think that addressing these shortages alone would make all the difference in the jobs crisis currently gripping America, but the time to let America's innovators play a bigger role in fixing the nation's problems is long overdue.
For the sake of the millions of unemployed Americans -- and his own re-election prospects -- it's time the President realizes the private sector is not just a piggy bank. The White House press office doesn't hide the fact that the visit to Silicon Valley is in part to fundraise for the President's flagging re-election campaign, but it's clear to the innovators that it's more a "masquerade ball" than "town hall."