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Leon Kaye headshot

Some Rust Belt Workers Remain Skeptical of Job Retraining Programs

By Leon Kaye

Hillary Clinton couldn’t win. The candidate often mocked for trying to be all things to all people actually had a plan she said could revive the U.S. manufacturing sector and retrain workers who lost their jobs. Her proposal was arguably tepid, but it was a plan. Voters in much of the Rust Belt didn’t want to hear it. Many opted to vote instead for someone who “tells it like it is."

Donald Trump really is not telling it like it is, but he has been successful at telling people what they want to hear. And with the recent announcement that Carrier (a company Trump sued in the past) will not close an Indiana factory after all, many voters who live in regions hit hard by manufacturing job losses feel justified in the choice they made in last month’s election.

The lesson learned is that citizens do not want to be told there are mostly winners and a few losers in globalization, and that a rapidly changing economy means that many of us will change industries and careers several times during our working lives. They just do not want those jobs to leave.

So, many manufacturing workers remain skeptical of the job-training programs offered by federal, state and local governments, as well as labor unions. As a recent report on Public Radio International (PRI) showcased, a steelworker who is making a hefty salary working overtime at the steel mill is not going to have much enthusiasm for learning about HVAC systems and installation.

A big part of this ongoing problem is human nature. Work defines much of who we are as individuals, and to have one’s livelihood taken away from him or her, due largely to circumstances beyond his or her control, has a devastating impact. And for the most part, companies are doing little to help their employees prepare for an evolving economy.

Over 30 years ago, the Silicon Valley tech giant that employed my father told its engineers it was doing away with drafting tables and paper, and that the time had come to learn on what was then an innovative CAD/CAM system. The company flew my father out of state for training, a process repeated over the next several years. Such efforts on the behalf of companies these days are rare; today the onus is on employees to prepare themselves for the moment when the technologies or processes to which they are accustomed is obsolete.

But the way in which job retraining programs are implemented is also a contributing problem. As a university president and professor asserted in a recent Bloomberg, job retraining assistance funded by the federal government is spread haphazardly across 47 different programs. Other federal agencies, such as the Department of Energy, maintain lists of where workers can score ideas on how to transition to industries such as solar power, but the information is often confusing and scattershot.

The bottom line is that the U.S. is arguably guilty of not investing in its people, as it spends 0.11 percent of GDP on labor market programs – only a fifth of what the other OECD countries contribute to such efforts. And the evidence suggests what is spent on training has not been managed effectively. As is the case with many social programs, half-hearted funding ends up with poor results.

But the arguments about how to distribute these job retraining programs may very well be moot anyway. The stubborn fact that few of us want to confront is that automation, not globalization, remains the manufacturing job killer. And in the next few years, job security could only become worse as automation becomes the norm within more sectors. Meanwhile, the manufacturing jobs that remain will largely require sophisticated technology skills.

Reforming the service sector in the U.S., and securing workplace protections won by the labor movement last century, is one step. But the reality is, whether it's heavy manufacturing or computer programming, the skills we need will change, and workers will have to be nimble enough to keep up or risk becoming obsolete.

Which leads to a long-term challenge: What is going to happen as more jobs are not snatched by China or Mexico, but automation?

Last month, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX suggested a universal basic income could compensate for disappearing jobs. The idea is not new, but it has morphed over the years. George McGovern suggested a basic income during his campaign for the presidency against Richard Nixon in 1972, a statement many say contributed to his campaign losing 49 states. But the idea is garnering interest again, and even some economic conservatives are offering basic guaranteed income as a way to stave off poverty in automated world.

Image credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye