Interest Groups Spar Over Gov’t-Subsidized Job Training For The Unemployed

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New skillsEveryone understands jobs are hard to come by in this economy. ?Factor in the lack of a college degree or other requisite ?hard skills? sought by many employers and the odds are even more daunting. ?Add in the fact that you may have already been out of work for several months, and you?re looking at one hell of an uphill climb.

Still, with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, state governments and cities all looking for ways to alleviate mounting debt burdens, funding for job training and retraining programs for the unemployed and underemployed?which have largely been government subsidized?are increasingly at risk. ?

Back in April, both the House and Senate jointly passed legislation cutting funding to Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs for Fiscal Year 2011 by 10%?or approximately $307 million?according to the Center for American Progress.

The debate about whether such cuts are a necessary measure given current economic realities or an attack, however indirect, on those Americans least able to bear the losses, has grown to a crescendo recently following heated negotiations over the debt ceiling and as President Barack Obama prepares to push his American Jobs Act through Congress.

And interest groups on either side of the issue seem equally unwavering in their stance.

?You can?t provide subsidies for people indefinitely,? says Daniel J. Meckstroth, chief economist and director of economic research at the Manufacturers Alliance, an Arlington, Virginia based trade group for manufacturers. ?There has to be a limit.?

Meckstroth argues that federal and state funding by way of subsidies?which he feels adds to a ballooning national debt irresponsibly?isn?t the answer for the American worker in the long-run. ?The onus, he says, has to be on the individual. ?

Many of the Manufacturer?s Alliances member organizations are hiring, Meckstroth says. But they?re unable to hire in significant numbers given that many unemployed workers oftentimes lack the requisite skills.

Which raises the question of exactly whose responsibility it is to train such workers. ?

?I don?t think there?s a really strong social responsibility for society to retrain people,? Meckstroth says. ??Long-term, what we need is employer-based training programs for jobs that actually exist.? ?Such programs, he says, are more effective than government-sponsored programs and subsidies, where there ?may or may not be a job? waiting.

But John McDermott, president of the Consortium for Worker Education, a New York advocacy group that receives part of its funding from WIA, says Meckstroth?s argument ?makes no sense? and that cuts to job training, given current unemployment figures, are ?irresponsible.?

The national employment rate for August was 9.1%?a figure unchanged from the July number, according to data released last week from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

McDermott says it?s a ?myth? that employer-based skills training programs are the solution to the problem of an unemployed, unskilled labor force since most employers currently don?t or can?t afford to provide such on-the-job training.

?It?s a buyer?s market,? says McDermott, who says his organization and its subsidiary programs provide some form of job training to as many as 20,000 low-income New Yorkers each year. ??Employers are looking for people who already have the skills.?

The truth, he says, is that some people just don?t seem to care very much about unskilled workers and the long-term unemployed, many of whom are low-income.

?I think one of the big mistakes we make in America is when the economy is strong we tend to cut funding to job-training funds because [the thought process] is you can go get a job anywhere,? says Paul Grasso, executive director of the North Country Regional Workforce Development Board in Plattsburgh, New York, ?a public-private partnership that provides job training support to several thousand individuals in New York State annually.

?Then you hit a recession like the one we?re in and the people who have the least amount of skills aren?t marketable,? he says. ??So when the economy is strong is actually when we should be investing in job training.?

But further funding cuts to WIA backed programs, which have witnessed cuts in each of the last five years, according to CWE?s McDermott, would mean debilitating shortfalls for critical programs that provide support to countless displaced Americans. ?

Grasso, for his part, believes that the answer to the problem, like it or not, lies in Washington?in the hands of lawmakers.

?We really need to rethink the legislation that governs job training,? he says.

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