Skilling Up Discouraged Workers

More than half of U.S. businesses have job openings they cannot fill as more workers without the right skills become discouraged about ever getting a job.The word "jobs" is on the lips of virtually every politician. Political campaigns pivot on what a candidate has done to create jobs or an opponent to deep-six them. However, there is little talk of filling the skilled jobs that sit vacant.

Catherine Rampell of The New York Times reports that more than half of U.S. employers claim they have jobs they can't fill, despite an unemployment rate exceeding 8 percent. It is a problem, she says, we share at about the same rate with rapidly developing economies in Brazil and India, which have much lower jobless rates.

In her "Dollars to doughnuts" blog, Rampell speculates there may be difficulties matching qualified workers with work-ready employers. But it is more likely, she says, there is a real shortage of people with the skills many businesses need.

U.S. manufacturers have warned about a mismatch of skills and available jobs for years. The problem keeps growing more serious as older workers retire and there is no one trained to replace them.

New machinery has increased productivity and lessened reliance on human skills on many manufacturing floors. Even so, there are still jobs only people can perform, but people with the required skills and work habits aren't anywhere to be found.

Think what would happen if there was a war-time scramble to skill up workers to fill those vacant, good-paying jobs in American businesses. The unemployment rate would drop, the economy would get an infusion of spending and tax revenues would increase. What politician wouldn't put that achievement on his or her campaign brochure?

Yet somehow a major initiative like this at a national or local level gets drowned under waves of competing interests or lost in a discussion over reducing federal and state support for colleges, community colleges and worker training.

Apocalyptic tales about the economy, outsourcing and downsizing don't motivate potential trainees to demand action. Why bother to invest your time and personal money in gaining skills that may become obsolete in the wake of technological change or cost-cutting that shifts production lines offshore?

We have tried to address the plight of displaced workers, but apparently failed to recognize a new cohort of discouraged workers, who drift through a series of low-pay jobs, never securing the training or education they need to achieve their full potential. The discouraged worker class also may include recent college graduates who have degrees, but few job prospects, or displaced workers who have given up looking for new jobs altogether.

When you think about the debt being transferred to subsequent generations, this could be the most corrosive deficit of all — a work force with great potential, but too little skill-training and encouragement to be their best.