Earlier this week, I noted that employers in Martinsville, a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in Virginia, have 1,400 unfilled jobs. Many jobs require skills that locals do not possess. But few aspiring workers are enrolling in courses at the region’s New College Institute that would equip them with those skills. Local officials bemoaned the lack of motivation of those out of work. “We don’t have an employment problem,” said City Manager Leon Towarnicki. “We have a participation problem.”
It turns out that the phenomenon of unfilled manufacturing jobs is hardly unique to Martinsville. Openings for manufacturing jobs this year have averaged 353,000 a month nationally, but manufacturers struggle to find workers to fill them, reports the Wall Street Journal today. The Journal article emphasizes the mismatch between job requirements and worker skills.
In 2000, 53% of manufacturing workers had no education past high school. By 2015, that share had fallen 9 percentage points, while the share with college or graduate degrees increased 8 points. … The “upskilling” in manufacturing mirrors a broader bias in the economy toward more educated workers. …
Companies say education and training systems haven’t evolved with industry needs.
Perhaps there is something grievously wrong with the U.S. system for educating and training workers. That’s not hard to believe: The federal and state governments fund more than a dozen job training programs, which are notorious for their overlap, administrative inefficiency and lack of effectiveness. But, then, the nation does have a strong system of community colleges. And as the Martinsville case shows, many people out of work are unwilling to avail themselves of the opportunities to re-tool themselves.
In a separate WSJ piece, “The Idle Army: America’s Unworking Men,” Nicholas Eberstadt with the American Enterprise Institute focuses on the decline in workforce participation among American men. The fraction of American men age 20 and older without paid work rose from 19% to 32% over the past 50 years. “For prime working-age men,” Eberstadt wrote, “the jobless rate jumped to 15% from 6%. Most of the postwar surge involved voluntary departure from the labor force.”
Who are America’s new cadre of prime-age male unworkers? They tend to be: (1) less educated; (2) never married; (3) native born; and (4) African-American. But those categories intersect in interesting ways. Black married men are more likely to be in the workforce than unmarried whites. Immigrants are more likely to be working or job-hunting than native-born Americans, regardless of ethnicity. …
What do unworking men do with their free time? Sadly, not much that’s constructive. About a tenth are students trying to improve their circumstances. But the overwhelming majority are what the British call NEET: “neither employed nor in education or training.” Time-use surveys suggest that they are almost entirely idle. .. For the NEETs, “socializing, relaxing and leisure” is a full-time occupation, accounting for 3,000 hours a year, much of this time in front of television or computer screens.
Part of the problem can be attributed to the workforce barriers encountered by America’s huge pool of ex-prisoners and felons, who account for one adult male in eight in the civilian non-jail population. Another is the increase in nonworking men who draw from disability and other means-tested benefit programs.
Meanwhile, writes Eberstadt, “the male retreat from the labor force has exacerbated family breakdown, promoted welfare dependence, and recast ‘disability’ into a viable and alternative lifestyle. Among these men the death of work seems to mean also the death of civic engagement, community participation and voluntary association.”
The assumption that “everybody wants to work” is no longer founded. That is an ethnocentric notion of U.S. elites, projecting their own values through an ideological filter upon an expanding underclass of all races. Economic policies that fail to recognize the new workforce reality, no matter how well intentioned, are a waste of time. Indeed, insofar as such policies distract us from the real issues and squander precious resources that our decreasingly affluent society can no longer afford, they do an actual harm.