October 19, 1995 in City

Quality Worker Education A Must

Froma Harrop Providence Journal-Bulletin
 

One national problem crying out for attention is the loss of good-paying American jobs to low-wage countries. Another is a dearth of skilled workers, which American companies insist will worsen if the nation admits fewer immigrants.

How rare to have two national problems that can solve each other.

How typical of our way of doing things that nothing is being done.

Congress is sleeping through the opportunity to address both problems with a meaningful job training program for American workers. Indeed, Republicans have singled out worker education as one of the broader targets on their spending hit list.

There is nothing very exciting about programs designed to improve workers’ skills. However, our failure to match American workers with existing good-paying jobs slowly erodes the national well-being.

A survey of small businesses found that many plan to hire new people over the next year but that a record 25 percent of them cannot find qualified workers. Conducted by Arthur Andersen and National Small Business United, the survey disclosed that firms engaged in research and development were especially hard-pressed to find suitable employees. Shortages also existed in the construction and manufacturing sectors.

Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, says his group wants “to maintain the employment-based immigration that provides American companies with the essential technical expertise in short supply in the United States. The shortage of available expert workers is a growing concern of American business.”

Jasinowski cites a case in Ohio in which the “Bureau of Employment Service was unable to find a single candidate in the state to fill one manufacturer’s tool-and-die opening.”

This story, if true, is shocking. Surely, a few of the millions that states routinely offer in tax concessions to attract industry could be diverted for training workers to actually perform the jobs created.

Above the state level, it is even harder to get officialdom interested in training programs for bread-and-butter factory positions that do not require a college degree.

And there is a new, scary threat: White-collar employment, once considered safely domestic, also has begun migrating overseas.

American companies are opening foreign facilities in which employees perform semiskilled work such as programming computers and processing American insurance claims. The locations are in China, India, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where science and math are drummed into the young and prevailing wages are much lower.

The revolutionary conservatives running things in Washington are quite correct that market forces efficiently can do away with the shortfall of skilled workers. Unfortunately, the problem will be solved without American workers.

It makes sense for an American company to sponsor a skilled worker from abroad. The business thus avoids the trouble and expense of training a local. Furthermore, skilled immigrants from poor countries are known to work for considerably lower pay than the native-born will.

If the employer feels patriotic and insists on training an American for the job opening, how can he be sure that the educated worker will not quit and take a job at a competitor?

Still, it is in the interests of domestic corporations for someone to employ citizens because employed Americans make dandy consumers.

Clearly, there is a role for the federal government here: Stock the pond with skilled workers and then let companies go out and find them.

The American love for chaos would not tolerate a comprehensive program, such as Germany’s, in which corporations and individuals are taxed specifically to pay for general training and apprenticeships. However, Americans ought not object to a modest program linking worker training with industry’s needs.

Good-quality worker education is the mark of a society that respects labor - and respects the demands of a global economy. It is too bad that the American public requires stronger stimulants to arouse its interest than this topic can supply.

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