Debunking Job Training as the “Solution” to the Supposed Skills Gap: Three Things You Need to Know

job training office_3

Anyone who’s worked in the “real world” knows and has internalized the fact that the boss doesn’t value you for your skill set, but rather for your willingness to take and follow orders  — with a smile on your face and a spring in your step.

As the Business Roundtable continues its successful campaign to convert public schools into a pipeline designed to create a compliant workforce, its critical to look back and trace the history of the ideas being promoted by business as solutions to society’s economic problems.

Job training is THE business preferred answer to unemployment and poverty. Best of all, it’s an idea even progressives can embrace.

It may come as a surprise, but the champion of the job training solution was President Reagan, who held up the want ads from the newspaper and famously declared there were plenty of well paying jobs. The problem, as framed by Reagan, was there just weren’t enough qualified individuals to fill these positions.

What on the surface appeared to be a political stunt masked a shrewd and radical re-definition of the government’s role in employment policy. In short, the government would no longer be the employer of last resort, reversing FDR’s and the New Deal Democrats approach to unemployment.

This had grave implications for America’s workers. First, by eliminating the federal government from competing with and driving up wages in the private sector. Second, by shifting the political responsibility for unemployment and poverty from the job market to the the workers themselves.

Here’s the first take away lesson on job training:

  • Job Training shifts responsibility for poverty from the job market to the individual failing of workers. The argument changes from “there aren’t enough living wages jobs” to “there’s plenty of jobs but workers are too lazy, stupid, or unskilled to qualify.”

What’s the most in demand skill employers just can’t seem to find?

The answer depends on when you asked the question. In the 1980’s it was computer skills, in the 90’s the ability to work in teams, and in the early 2000’s being a creative knowledge worker. Of course, today its all about STEM.

Through all of the years of hype over the next big thing, one in demand skill remained consistent: obedience.

Of course, we already knew that.

Anyone who’s worked in the “real world” knows and has internalized the fact that the boss doesn’t value you for your skill set, but rather for your willingness to take and follow orders  — with a smile on your face and a spring in your step.

The second take away lesson on job training:

  • The most in demand skill for employers is obedience, which gets the 21st Century makeover of “conscientiousness”, “dependability”, and “motivation”. This makes sense because maximum profit is exacted when workers not only obediently do the work, but do the task exactly in the way the employer demands

So, what is a proven way to increase wages and benefits for workers, especially for women and people of color?

Union membership.

Don’t believe me? Look it up. It’s called the union premium. This is also the reason why business funded think tanks have spent so much time trying to discredit unions.

Why are unions considered so dangerous by business?

Because they’re a political solution to an economic problem. If people understand they can organize and fight for better wages, jobs, and working conditions, business doesn’t get to dictate the terms of the debate and is no longer allowed to become the self-appointed expert on all things related to employment.

What’s the third take away lesson?

When it comes to wages and benefits, union membership beats job training by a mile.

Imagine that.

-Carolyn Leith





  1. Here is an article recycled today in my local newspaper. High school students and teachers looking at labor market information for their state. In this illustration a student learns that her desire to become a teacher of science is a bad economic choice. The idea that students will, must, or should, stay in their current state for a job is really taking a toll on aspirations for upward mobility. In Ohio, the governor thinks that public universities must contribute to the economy of Ohio–this is an era where local economies are determined far more by national and international activities than in the past.
    At an arts celebration with high school students in the statehouse, the governor was only interested in posing questions about the jobs students would have. This is not far from the reasoning of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Bill Gates and others who argue for “transparency” about the income earned by graduates of specific programs of higher education. The end result of thinking of economic gain is everything is this: the erosion of programs of study in the arts and humanities, and expanding the horizons of interest in anything other that market-place values. Milton Friedman and his heirs are happy as all get out.

    1. Absolutely, Laura, the other concrete reality we must face as a society is that the workplace isn’t a democracy, it’s a dictatorship. Always has been, alway will be. So, if we allow our public schools to be turned into workforce development pipelines, we are also giving permission for the further erosion of what is left of our democracy. Oh, and one state mandated course on civics isn’t going to reverse the damage -Carolyn

      1. YES. And it seems a bit naive on the part of the populace to assume that the “workforce development” pushed so aggressively by today’s big tech money has in mind anything more than 8-10 hours a day sitting in a small cubicle in front of computer screen for very little pay.

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