Once again, I have to start with a disclosure: I am not an economist and these thoughts likely shouldn’t be taken seriously by anybody. Of course a lack of expertise hasn’t stopped me from bloviating about ways to fix the world, and not being an expert certainly hasn’t even stopped Donald Trump from becoming president. With that in mind, I have a dream about a program to help get people to work. It has two main ingredients, and I don’t know if it would work, but it’s fun to imagine anyway.
To think about how to fix the jobs problem in the United States, we have to first think about what the problem is, and who is affected. And then it leads me to the solution that’s been in my dreams lately. It’s a great dream, of a bold initiative, with a practical solution to a pressing problem. Something I could imagine being a crux of the Bartlet Democrat platform.
When we hear politicians talk about jobs these days, they’re mostly talking about a whole segment of the population that used to work as laborers in places like factories and coal mines. These are not easy jobs to have, and they often come with considerable risk and health consequences, but they were relatively easy jobs to get, and the pay and benefits were good enough to support a family, and it was part of what was a thriving middle class in America. We’ve lost many, if not most of these jobs. Many have gone to places where labor is cheaper and less regulated. People see this happening, and right-leaning politicians point the finger at liberal policies that have worked to improve the working conditions of our laborers, adding regulatory burden to the employers. I can appreciate this claim. I’m a scientist, and I’ve felt the regulatory burden on scientists increase over the past twenty years. It’s exhausting at times. I think most or all of us can see these changes. So it’s easy to make this claim and have it accepted, because there’s truth to it. Indeed, we no longer allow children to work in factories and coal mines, and we have government agencies who are charged with burdensome regulations that are designed to prevent things like massive oil spills. These things don’t always work, and the reaction is often to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve written about this before: the strange response to government failures that so often manifests as a reflexive desire to get rid of government, rather than strengthen it. And, because it’s easy to sell the downside of regulations, it’s easy to blame this on why jobs are going overseas. It’s even fair, and at least partly accurate to say that it’s precisely why a lot of jobs are going to other countries. If my job is to run a company that makes stuff, and I can get workers to make my stuff at 20 cents an hour, and have lower legal bills while doing so, why wouldn’t I do that over paying my workers the minimum wage ($7.25/hour as of now) and needing a team of lawyers to make sure we’re complying with the regulations? It’s a no brainer from the CEO’s point of view (maybe not a no-brainer, because there’s other things like public perception and brand loyalty, etc, but let’s leave that stuff out for the sake of this).
It’s easy to say that we’ve got it tough. It’s easy to see why more money can be made using labor from other countries that allow worse conditions for their workers. But is the answer really making life worse for our workers? I honestly don’t know where the balance should be. Is it better to have more jobs, but have those jobs more harmful and risky to those taking them? This isn’t an easy question, but I know for sure I don’t want to go back to the days before unions, and before child labor laws. Maybe that’s a bit of a straw man, as if the only choices are today’s climate or total exploitation, but I hope we can all appreciate that the regulations are there for a reason, and not just to make life harder for those who need to follow them.
Blaming the loss of jobs on trade agreements is a pretty hot thing in politics these days. It seems to get a lot of traction, but I’m not buying it. I think it’s more likely that trade agreements can put pressure on other countries to improve working conditions, which is good for other human beings, and more selfishly helps balance the playing field so we all have to treat our workers with respect. This isn’t just my gut saying this. If we look at countries where corporations “send” jobs, we find that the top countries for offshoring jobs are countries with which we do not have trade agreements. So the rhetoric that trade agreements are allowing companies to send jobs to other countries doesn’t make sense to me, and I don’t think that’s the real problem.
It seems to me, and to many others, that the real problem lies in modernization. For a long time, we had plenty of jobs for the person who wasn’t all that ambitious. We had plenty of jobs for the person who didn’t want to learn much. We had plenty of jobs for the guy who was willing to work hard, but didn’t want to think much. People like the fictional Laverne and Shirley (from the TV show) could make a living as bottlecappers in a brewery. Americans drink around 6.3 billion gallons of beer in a single year. If those were all from bottles, that’s about 65.7 billion bottles, each needing a cap. That’s 179.9 million bottles getting capped a day. Assuming a person can put a cap on a bottle at a rate of one per second, and that person works for eight hours straight (without any breaks), that’s 28,800 bottles a day, meaning that we need more than 6,200 bottle cappers to keep up with demand. Of course, that’s assuming that all those gallons were in bottles, and that all those bottles were capped in the United States, but you get the point. It’s a lot of jobs even if it’s a fraction of that, and that’s just for being a bottlecapper. What about the labels, and the people who pick up the broken glass, and push the button to dispense the beer, and mop the floor…and that’s just for beer. These jobs were all available, but these jobs are not done by humans anymore. These are all things that have been modernized, and can happen much more efficiently, with much less expense, by machines. That’s where the jobs have gone. Not to China or India or Indonesia, they’ve gone to machines.
But all hope is not lost. There are still jobs here. There are jobs that Americans don’t want (like picking crops, like mopping floors, like flipping burgers) because they don’t seem to have any upward mobility, or they don’t pay enough, or they aren’t close enough to home, but aside from these, there’s still demand. For example, according to Careerbuilder.com, in 2016 there were almost 300,000 unique job postings every month for registered nurses. A table at that link has lots of jobs that are in demand, with thousands of postings per month, but let’s use registered nurse as an example for now. What if you’re the person who might have been destined to be a bottlecapper forty years ago? How do you compete for a job as a registered nurse? Where do you start? That’s where my thoughts on this start, and it brings us to what I’m dreaming about these days:
A massive website that seamlessly integrates job openings and training opportunities. I’m picturing something like careerbuilder.com or monster.com or ladders.com, or one of the many job sites out there, but this would be bigger. This would be government funded, and not profit driven, and more than being an online classified ad website, it would integrate with detailed descriptions of what people with a particular job look like. What did they study? Where did they learn how to do what they do? Jobs that don’t require anything beyond high school (or that don’t require high school) could have links to information about what daily life is like for people with those jobs, and show current job openings. Jobs that require vocational training would have the same kind of information, but also links to places that provide the training needed. Same with jobs that require advanced training. To use an example that’s an uncommon career path, but one I know well, imagine there’s a job posting for a behavioral neuroscientist. The description of the job would be posted, and it could attract qualified applicants, but that’s not the real value here. The real value would be that it has a link to a description of what a behavioral neuroscientist does, how many behavioral neuroscience job opportunities there are in an average year, different settings in which we work, and what kind of training is needed to become a behavioral neuroscientist. The required training section would have all kinds of information including links to training programs, a clear understanding of how long all that training will take, some metric of success rates, and other key metrics like average salary, some kind of stress index, happiness index, travel requirements, relocation requirements, etc. (The more I think about this, just creating this database would create thousands of jobs; it’s a huge task, but one that could be accomplished).
The website alone would make a big difference, but we can do even better by establishing public career centers. We have job fairs, and we have public funding for education, including career training, and that’s all fine, but I have a vision of dedicated offices, about as many as there are DMVs (maybe a slightly smaller number), devoted to job training and career counseling. These are places with well-trained, patient, and informed people who can provide career counseling for anybody. Each counsellor would be well-trained to know his/her limits of expertise, but the goal would be to create a network that’s well enough integrated that any person, with any desired career path, could get in touch with somebody who can help. We would equip the offices with all kinds of information and integrate them with the website and a network of counsellors in specific fields that could be connected with a job seeker online.
In my fantasy, it would be a great diverse mix of goals. Somebody might walk in and say they want to be the guy who runs fiberoptic cable for new FiOS installation, and the counsellor can bring up basic information, and make an appointment for the person to talk (by internet if there’s nobody local) with an expert in that kind of technology who can guide the job seeker through the steps to achieving that goal. Somebody else walks in and says they want to be a particle physicist, and with a quick search, up comes all kinds of information about particle physicists, what they do, how they trained, how hard it is, and if the seeker is still interested, an appointment could be made with a particle physicist somewhere in the country to talk about how s/he got to where they are. It would take a massive investment, and a network of volunteers, but I’m positive that it could get done, if we wanted it to get done.
Dare to dream, right?