The Recovery Act Fights Reagan’s Job Training Agenda

By Guest Columnist Jul 06, 2009

by Jonathan Yee Need a job? Well, the National Recovery Act has created a great deal of excitement for green jobs and their potential to save the environment and create jobs for low income communities; for example, Oakland’s Green Jobs Corps’ first graduating class is just one of many similar programs in the nation. However, the history of job training programs and their founding philosophy paves the way for plenty of skepticism about the Recovery Act’s ultimate impact. When I say job training, I don’t mean training within a successful company, or in an established trade where employees learn new skills to be more productive at their work; I mean state-funded job training for low-income communities, usually communities of color. These groups historically have been excluded from the formal economy and have benefited relatively little. Job training is relatively new in the United States. Before the passage of the Job Training Partnership Act in 1982, state programs that directly intervened in the job market focused on job creation rather than job training. Reagan passed the JTPA based on the philosophy that there was nothing wrong with the economy, but there was something wrong with the people who couldn’t find jobs. The thinking was that the unemployed and underemployed were not acclimated with the new times or the new technology, and they needed training. This is typical of Reagan policies — blaming the individual, rather than looking at the institutional factors that attribute to inequity and poverty. The institutional push by Reagan and Clinton to dismantle the welfare state and remove all social safety nets has actually increased poverty and devastated communities of color. These policy shifts created a weak foundation for the current state of workforce training programs. It could easily be argued that this approach to job training was not meant to do anything but institutionally stigmatize individuals for not keeping up with the economy. At the very least, these programs continue to be a go-to political pacifier for policymakers who promote them as poverty reduction measures, though studies have shown for years that job training has been a failure as a means of countering unemployment. As the New York Times said today,

a little-noticed study the Labor Department released several months ago found that the benefits of the biggest federal job training program were “small or nonexistent” for laid-off workers. It showed little difference in earnings and the chances of being rehired between laid-off people who had been retrained and those who had not.

The problem in the United States is that there are no guaranteed jobs with these training programs. Training is mostly done at community colleges or federally funded programs that are not directly connected to workplaces. Social networks and interpersonal connections remain critical for employment, but are out of reach for those excluded from the formal economy; American job training programs do nothing to address this disparity. Compare this to job training programs in Japan and parts of Europe, which are specifically structured for guaranteed employment and long-term benefits. Even with a particularly large temporary job workforce, Japan and Europe have established wages and benefits that are equal to the full-time workforce. Granted, every country’s labor market has distinct characteristics, but one can’t deny the impact of the government’s role in ensuring that sound employment policies are upheld. In order for the Recovery Act to be a success, the Obama Administration and Green Economy advocates must build a new foundation, making racial equity the centerpiece of any policy directive. With all this opportunity, we can dramatically change the infrastructure of the economy, so that equity, equality, and prosperity can come together. This is an opportunity that we won’t see again anytime soon; hopefully we can get it right this time, and make it stick.