GI Bill for the shop floor

January 18, 2010
By: Tim Heston

This recession has got me thinking about careers. As you know, unemployment still is uncomfortably high. Businesses may be recovering, but they aren’t hiring in a substantial way just yet. The talking heads on TV are pointing fingers, saying the government stimulus hasn’t led to any significant improvement in the employment picture. This may be because of an issue that’s not talked about too much: the structurally unemployed, those who held jobs that aren’t coming back.

When structural unemployment is brought up, many describe those iconic manufacturing tradesmen who spent years perfecting their skills, only to find that hands-on skill taken over by machines. This happens, but it’s not the whole story. If people spend years perfecting a skill—be it welding, press brake operation, or anything else—they're valuable because of that learning experience. They can work hard, and they can learn. If a lifetime welder who specialized in GMAW is out of a job, he can get educated in GTAW and perhaps find a job elsewhere. The job may be located across the country, so if the welder’s stuck in a house that can’t be sold, that’s another story altogether. Regardless, for those who’ve spent years learning a skill, chances are they can learn another one and find a job.

The bigger problem is those with limited or no skill. Say a student graduates high school and wants to jump into the working world. Where is that student going to work? A high school diploma doesn’t mean as much as it used to. With shop classes shuttered, many aren’t even graduating with the basic hands-on skills needed for manufacturing and construction jobs. If students don’t attend a college or technical school, their choices really are limited to jobs that require them to wear those “Hello, my name is” nametags. Walmart, here we come.

Chris Kuehl, the economist for the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, aptly described this phenomenon in a Friday e-newsletter. He said that the U.S. has fewer “interchangeable” jobs that require little or no skill. “The U.S. of even 20 or 30 years ago had millions of jobs that were essentially interchangeable. There were whole sectors of the working community that could shift from one type of job to another in a matter of weeks or days. Much of construction and manufacturing was manual labor of one kind or another, and there was a revolving door of sorts. As the construction season wound down or there was a slump in building, these workers went to work in the factory for a while.”

Those unskilled jobs just aren’t there. This is why, Kuehl explained, stimulus money aimed at road building and infrastructure upgrades hasn’t put a dent in the unemployment rate. These projects now require skilled people to operate big machines, and many of these people already have jobs, or at least weren’t unemployed for very long. The long-term unemployed are still waiting for jobs to come back.

The way I see it, the stimulus program seems to be throwing money in the wrong direction. The government can’t force businesses to hire, particularly the unskilled. What it can do, though, is make it easier for people to get an education so that they can become skilled.

After World War II, the GI Bill provided a college education to an entire generation of veterans. Today the government could launch a similar program that would focus on providing free education, but with limits: It must fill the needs of the job market. This country has plenty of lawyers, for instance. A recent New York Times article described how recent law school grads, even from elite schools, can’t find work. But we still need technical people and those proficient in the skilled trades, and for this the government could provide free rides to trade, technical, and engineering schools. It would be like a GI Bill for the shop floor—and not just for GIs, but also for the unemployed who lack skills demanded by the job market.

Another area where the money would do some good is shop class. I was required to take shop, and I have my career to thank for it. I found out I would never have a career building things (you’d agree after seeing my finished projects), but I asked my teacher some good questions. I had genuine interest in shop technology, I did well in English class—so here I am.

Admittedly, such a program would be problematic. It would cost billions, be a bear to implement (how do you define “unskilled,” for instance), and I don’t like the idea of the government throwing money at problems. But it is dong that already. And if the government is tossing out money, wouldn’t it be great if at least some of the money landed in the right places?
Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
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