Who Bears the Risk?

After a few missteps early on, blaming the unemployed or the federal government for joblessness, this article in the Wall Street Journal lurches uncontrollably into a worthwhile insight:

Longer-term trends are at play. For one, the U.S. education system hasn’t been producing enough people with the highly specialized skills that many companies, particularly in manufacturing, require to keep driving productivity gains. “There are a lot of people who are unemployed, but those aren’t necessarily the people employers are looking for,” says David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Manufacturers of high-precision products such as automobile and aircraft parts are in a particularly tough spot. Global competition keeps them from raising wages much. But they need workers with the combination of math skills, intuition and stamina required to operate the computer-controlled metalworking machines that now dominate the factory floor.

There’s a lot to unpack in those two paragraphs.

  1. The skills employers are seeking aren’t the skills their applicants have.
  2. Stiff competition prevents the employers from offering higher wages (or, presumably, training programs).
  3. It’s the function of the public schools to provide “highly specialized skills”.

That last is claptrap. It cannot conceivably be the role of the public schools to teach future employees how to operate specific devices or tools. The requirement is simply too narrow and changes too much over time.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans play video games. I cannot believe that among the unemployed there are no young people who play video games sufficiently well to have the basic qualifications for operating computer-controlled tools. That leaves math skills which I will acknowledge is well within the purview of the schools. For many people math can be frustrating and I wouldn’t be surprised if that isn’t a prime reason for dropping out of school.

However, my prescription would be for the public schools to stick to their last, teaching readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic, and leave training in highly specialized skills to others. That’s proven challenge enough. I also think that students should have greater, more proximate incentives for staying in school. Should students be paid to stay in school? I think it’s an interesting debate question.

I can certainly think of negative incentives. Stricter enforcement of truancy laws. Making the issuance of permanent drivers licenses contingent on high school graduation. Just to name two.

There is an underlying issue that I think is worth discussing. When it comes to acquiring highly specialized skills, particularly those for which the total number of people who can be expected to use them or that are likely to change dramatically over time, acquiring the skills takes on an element of risk. Who bears the risk? Historically, employers have borne the risk of such training but global competition may have produced an environment in which employers would rather move their operations than teach the skill necessary to maintain them.

If employers are no longer able to bear the risk, can prospective employees? IMO it’s quite possible that some of the reason for the lingering high level of unemployment is that prospective employees aren’t willing or, possibly, aren’t able to bear the risks of acquiring a specialized skill for which the likelihood of actually using it may be iffy. I recall the many stories of people who learned to be medical billing specialists only to discover later that jobs for medical billing specialists had gone to India.

There are ways that government can reasonably bear these risks. One way that comes to mind would be for the government to subsidize apprenticeship programs. Employers would come to the local, state, or federal government with jobs that require particular skills, analogous to applying for H-1B visas. The government would subsidize a hefty proportion of the trainee’s wages in exchange for a guarantee from the employer of an eventual wage at an agreed-upon rate after an agreed-upon period of time. It seems to me that would be better than paying unemployment benefits in perpetuity.

2 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    My brother-in-law got at least part of his undergrad degree in engineering paid for by his major manufacturer employer and certainly all of his master’s degree in engineering. Given the number of H-1B visas at his work, I suspect (but don’t know) that his free education was the price of getting more visas.

    I think part of the issue is that employers do not necessarily get equal protection from fronting money to train employees. If the employee gets a degree paid for by Employer A, but Employer B is offering a better deal (wages, advancement options, etc.), the Employee may go to the competitor. Employer A can try to protect himself with a contract to clawback tuition, but generally courts do not look with favor on agreements in restraint of free labor. (Question: Are funds advanced by employers for tuition dischargeable in bankruptcy? I think they probably are, but am not sure)

  • KenB Link

    Re your last paragraph, some states are already doing that. I work at a small company in Connecticut, and we’ve just hired nine people to work for us in South Carolina, after that state made an offer that the owner couldn’t refuse — they paid an instructor to run a 16-week training course that we designed, they gave us the option of hiring whoever we wanted to hire from the 20-person class, they’ll be paying for three months of on-the-job training and are giving us substantial tax breaks per employee. Without all these incentives, there’s no way we’d be setting up any operations in SC. The boss refers to it as “south-shoring”.

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