Why Aren't Republicans Offering a Job Training Alternative to the Ideas of President Obama?
On July 15, President Obama announced a major new federal investment in job training and community colleges. He appropriately made the announcement in Michigan, a state with 14% unemployment, the highest in the nation, and a major political battleground state.
Obama's plan consists of a $12 billion investment in community colleges. Part of the funds will help build and renovate buildings, part will expand on line courses and part will provide challenge grants for programs to expand "student success."
This plan may or may not be the best one to help retrain workers. However, it is a credible plan. Wages for better-educated workers grow much faster than their lesser-educated counterparts. The Educational Testing Service reported earlier this year that in 1979 the average college graduate could expect to earn 56% more than his or her counterparts without a college education. Today, college graduates expect to earn 96% more. President Bush significantly increased spending on community colleges, though not as much as Obama has proposed.
As more and more workers lose jobs, job training has never been more important. Yet the Republican response to Obama's plan, articulated by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee (the one with jurisdiction over the relevant Workforce Investment Act) member Lamar Alexander, was that the funds that would be used to pay for Obama's worker retraining program should go to reduce the deficit instead of worker retraining.
Deficit reduction is important but at this point in America's economic story, investments such as worker retraining as vital.
They make good politics too. As the GOP nominee last year, candidate McCain privately and publically called for new job retraining policies, yet failed to develop an innovative plan. Republicans should not cede this issue to the President. There are too many Americans out of work, particularly in Midwest battleground states.
The Workforce Investment Act, the bill that allocates most federal job training dollars, is up
for reauthorization. The GOP could demonstrate its "compassionate" side by showing more care and solutions for those Americans afraid of losing their jobs. Many Republicans would not want to add large spending programs, yet President Bush already demonstrated that Republicans can spend on social programs, like education and health, and win election.
Federal training and employment expenditures peaked a generation ago and have fallen to point that government spending on job training is now lower as a percentage of GDP (0.04% in 2000) than in most industrialized countries. Part of reason for that decline is concern in Congress about the quality of government employment and training programs. Yet, lack of quality was the very reason candidate Bush got involved in education reform in 2000.
If Republicans believe that workers need skills to succeed in a global economy and that workers are anxious and want skills, then their figuring out how to improve the programs that provide the skills will allow them to reap the rewards.
If President Bush can expand the federal role in education, where Washington traditionally spent less than 7% of total national education funding, then expanding the federal role in job training, where the federal share is already more than 9%, is perhaps more consistent with what the public sees as an appropriate federal role.
A worker retraining plan to empower states, increase funding and have dollars follow the worker is consistent with both the last Bush Administration's job training and education plans and could make a difference if GOP leaders would focus on and market such ideas. They could propose greater tax incentives for businesses to provide training and for employees who upgrade their skills, engage in lifelong learning and purchase technology to help them improve their capacities.
Rather than give up this furtile policy and political ground, Republican leaders should get to work on developing their own plan.