Obama, Biden pitch job training: Do reforms go far enough?

Job training is an important component of getting Americans back to work and the economy humming again. President Obama and Republicans offered dueling messages Wednesday.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Barack Obama takes a tour of the Mechatronics Program at Community College of Allegheny County West Hills Center Wednesday in Oakdale, Pa., before speaking about the importance of jobs-driven skills training.

Both President Obama and House Republicans offered dueling messages Wednesday on an issue important to getting millions of Americans back to work and the national economy back on track.

The idea is to boost worker skills, which are crucial to matching unemployed people with good jobs.

An upgraded labor force can make America more attractive to international businesses offering the middle- to high-wage jobs Americans want. And for the 3.7 million “long-term unemployed” workers, who haven’t been able to find new jobs for half a year or more, the path back to a job with decent earnings may run through a school or certificate program.

The White House wants to invest more in job training. Republicans argue that the administration should first streamline the programs that already exist. But both sides – and many labor market experts – agree on a few fundamental points.

  • Job training is important, and the federal government has a role to play. A memo from the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said many want ads are going unfilled because of a training shortfall. "A 'skills gap' is preventing our workers from getting the skills they need for the 21st century jobs they want."
  • Federal money for job training has been falling. Training funds went up for a time as unemployment surged following the 2008 financial crisis, a 2011 report from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution noted. In general, though, “spending on training has fallen from a high in the early 1980s,” the report said. Since then, a squeeze on federal discretionary spending has made training budgets tighter.
  • Streamlining of programs is needed. Mr. Obama has called the 47 or so federal job training programs a “maze,” and in this year’s State of the Union address he called on Vice President Joe Biden to lead "across-the-board" reforms. Republicans say their Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act does that.
  • Job training isn’t a panacea. The cure to high unemployment (the jobless rate is 6.7 percent) lies mainly in a job-creating revival of consumer demand in the US and around the world, not in the supply of fresh “human capital” through training. The short list of policies businesses most want for job creation is more likely to include free-trade agreements, tax reform, and regulatory reform. Still, the US Chamber of Commerce includes four bullet points on government job-training programs in its policy goals.

Where the two political parties disagree is on the scale of funding for training and on how to ensure results.

The president traveled with Mr. Biden to a Pennsylvania community college to roll out $600 million in grants for training and apprenticeship efforts. The move doesn’t need a House and Senate vote because it draws on funds Congress has already authorized for spending.

House Republicans point to the SKILLS Act. “We’ve done the homework, passed the bill, and all we need now is for the president to help us get the SKILLS Act to his desk,” the e-mail from Mr. Boehner's office said.

The White House has opposed the SKILLS Act, arguing in part that “any effort to streamline the current system must allow for sufficient funding to meet the needs of workers and job-seekers.” House Democrats say the Republican bill shifts responsibility to the states “without meaningful accountability.”

But US workers might be helped, some labor economists say, if both sides could focus on the points of agreement, such as supporting efforts that connect workers with skills that are in demand from local employers. That’s what Obama pitched on Wednesday.

“We need to take a job-driven approach,” Obama said.

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