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Washington's Smoke-and-Mirrors No Good for Laid-Off Workers

Congress and the Bush administration have engaged in yet another vitriolic verbal war over policy, this time related to trade legislation supposed to help workers laid off due to offshoring.

But analysts say the clamor in Washington is misguided. The feds can do better than protectionism, they say, and focus on retraining as a way to help all laid-off workers, not just those hurt by globalization. Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia University's business school, recently explained on American Public Media's Marketplace:

We could broaden the benefits Congress has sanctioned for workers who prove they lose their jobs to trade to all workers facing the need to change lines of work. We should add funds for customized training through community colleges and vocational institutes — that is, training for skills in production management, machinery, logisitics management and so on.

I agree. Our economy is changing, and with it, the job market. We need to equip workers with skills for in-demand jobs that stay ashore, so they get good salaries.

Give Colleges Money to Use for Job Training

Earlier this year, Alan S. Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton University, wrote in a Washington Post article on offshoring:

And even though many displaced workers will have to change occupations -- a difficult task for anyone -- only a fortunate few will be offered opportunities for retraining. All this needs to change. ... Because U.S. labor cannot compete on price, we must reemphasize the things that have kept us on top of the economic food chain for so long: technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, adaptability and the like. ...

In addition, we need to rethink our education system so that it turns out more people who are trained for the jobs that will remain in the United States and fewer for the jobs that will migrate overseas.

Community colleges are well-positioned to provide workforce training. Many are adept at getting training programs up and running in a short amount of time. The schools are known for offering affordable prices and flexible class schedules. They also form alliances with local employers, targeting training programs to employers' needs and offering workers a better chance of landing jobs.

More federal funding would bolster such programs, as Hubbard suggested. Of course, community colleges must evolve along with the job market, helping shape policy and raise awareness for their programs. An essay by the Community College Research Center underscores this idea:

Inarguably, community colleges are indispensable to the nation’s economic health. Because of their commitment to serving communities and learners, the community college will always serve as a nexus for workforce transitions. The question is not whether they will continue in this role, but how well they will perform. In this article we suggest that community colleges need to understand and document key areas of workforce transitions in ways that can aid their own practice and can promote effective policy.

Help for All Displaced Workers

Hubbard also made a convincing case that all displaced workers need assistance, not just those who lose their jobs because of free trade. He explained:

Congress should drop the tough trade talk as a way to protect American jobs. And that's because trade isn't the only, or even biggest, reason people lose them. The real reasons are far more complex. To hear the talk in Washington, it all boils down to China, free trade agreements and other foreign competition.

In fact, we can't tell whether trade is entirely to blame. Indeed, reasons like falling demand, corporate restructuring and efficiency gains perhaps unrelated to trade are very much in the mix. But even if we could tell the difference, why is losing a job to trade worthy of assistance, while losing a job because of, say, technology improvements, isn't?

The book "Workforce Crisis" makes a similar point about trade:

Twice as many American workers are displaced by the outsourcing of their jobs to other Americans than by the offshoring of that work to foreign firms. If you count jobs created in the United States by foreign companies, the country remains a net importer of jobs by a wide margin.

America isn't without opportunities. We just need to be able to train our workers to meet those opportunities--and run with them.

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