I was saddened to see President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan try to raise the Zombie Skills Gap argument from the grave again last week. I won't mince words. The claim that there are millions of open jobs that no Americans are qualified to fill is complete hogwash. Unfortunately, that has never stopped advocates of the skills gap myth, which is a particularly durable corporate con job, from trotting it out whenever working people are on the ropes. In fact, virtually identical claims made by others, who now seem mind-numbingly clueless in retrospect, were also heard during both the Great Depression and the savage recession that unfolded during the late 1970's/early 1980's. The reason so many people did not have jobs back then was they were just not qualified. Really. That is what they said. Here, for example, is what Ewan Clague, who went on to become head of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, famously observed in a 1935 paper written at the height of the Great Depression. The paper was entitled “The Problem of Unemployment and the Changing Structure of Industry:"
“I believe this present labor supply of ours is peculiarly unadaptable and untrained. It cannot respond to the opportunities which industry may offer.” (cited from the Journal of the American Statistical Association, Ewan Clague, 1935).
President Ronald Reagan made similar claims early in his presidency during what was at that time the biggest recession to hit since the Great Depression (funny how that keeps happening, no?). Reagan famously shared his jaundiced view of the qualifications of the beleaguered American workforce after he scanned the help wanted ads (many of which turned out to be completely phony) in a Chicago newspaper one Sunday morning:
“These newspaper ads convinced us," Reagan said "that there are jobs waiting and people not trained for those jobs.”
Those holding this view typically contend that there is (and always was) basically no underlying problem in the U.S. economy. So, instead of fixing the economy (like maybe starting with the banks this time) they contend that it is the workers who need fixing. The solution: improving the links between employers, schools and job training providers. That way, businesses who have all those open positions will finally be able to hire all the workers they need. Problem solved.
Gee, I wonder why no one ever thought of that before? Well, actually, they have.
As a former federal official who helped design the Obama administration's signature job training program, it pains me greatly to note the obvious: linking job training programs to specific employer needs has been a central part of federal job training efforts since at least the 1930's. I benefited from one such program, the federally-funded Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) during the downturn of the late 1970's when I was in my twenties. There have been many, many others. The idea of linking training with a workplace is, by itself, as old as Social Security and can hardly be called fresh or exciting. It's embarrassing to see President Obama caught flat-footed on this again, steered into an oval office session where he publicly proclaims something innovative and effective when in fact it is both old hat and an old saw. And that is truly a shame, because when it comes to current federal job training efforts there really is something new and exciting going on. Unfortunately, it's something President Obama never talks about.
Here is what needs to be said (and what I saw as a young federal job training program graduate): In the real world the impact of enhanced employer/job trainer linkages depends almost entirely on the ability and willingness of participating employers to hire program graduates. And that "willingness to hire" depends primarily on overall economic conditions since no matter what they say, in a free market economy employers mostly hire more workers only when they have more customers, demand, and business. I never had a chance to talk with the President or Vice President about any of this (and believe me, I tried). I can only surmise that no one close to them ever explained why they should be skeptical when employers cite the poor qualifications of job applicants and the so-called skills gap as obstacles to job growth in the United States (interestingly, these skills gap arguments never arise in places such as Vietnam and Malaysia, perhaps because workers in those countries have what has become the world's most important job skill, which is a willingness to work for peanuts).
Leaders of major firms in the U.S. routinely mislead policymakers about who they hire, when, and why. On this, I almost feel sorry for the CEO's because when it comes to talking about hiring plans dishonesty is part of their job. In reality, CEO's, and in particular those who lead big public companies today, have no choice but to say they have open positions even when they are busy firing workers left and right. The bosses must tell those fibs because if they don't, Wall Street stock analysts (reminder: I worked for CNBC) will downgrade their stocks. (If a CEO says her firm has no hiring plans, financial analysts conclude she does not expect much growth and will then lower the firm's stock rating, which depresses the price of the stock. When a firm's stock price goes down, the firm has a harder time hiring anyone even when they really want to). So virtually all major U.S. employers routinely lie about their hiring plans, especially the employers rich and powerful enough to meet regularly with the President and his senior business liaisons. The CEOs must tell those lies to survive, which is why they all talk about the supposedly huge number of job vacancies they would fill if only they could find qualified applicants. The President and the Vice President hear that from virtually every CEO they meet, that they can't find enough qualified workers. But that's because that is what every CEO they meet must say. CEO's, who must paint a rosy scenario for their firms, simply have no choice but to tell such fibs. Public officials, however, are under no obligation to repeat them.
It's also important to remember that even the supposedly more reliable measures of the skills gap are based almost entirely on some type of self report by employers and data from similar sources, for example, calculations of the number of help wanted ads. But many credible investigations, including my own reporting on the same issue during the Reagan administration, which led to a Congressional investigation, have shown that employers routinely mislead others about their hiring needs and plans. In many other cases, employers simply have no idea how many workers they will need next year or the following year. The training offered today may not match up with what the company needs a year or two later.
Now, one might ask: overall, isn’t it a good thing to emphasize the importance of skills attainment in tech fields even if it is correct that the number of open, good paying jobs may be exaggerated? What is the problem here? Answer: It makes perfect sense to emphasize the importance of skills attainment. We should do more of that -- and I personally do all I can. But I don't think it makes sense to give aid and comfort to those who have a vested interest in pretending that economic conditions are better than they are. What's more, it's bad form. It's like telling someone it's fine outside when you know it's raining. The only thing that accomplishes is to destroy confidence in the person who passed along the bad information. When President Obama make those claims, he appears out of touch.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s well-meaning but misguided language about the so-called “skills gap” also damages the President's own agenda. It alienates qualified but unemployed Americans by denying their reality. To be sure, a limited number of employers in some places have faced limited shortages of qualified workers. That was true, for example, last year for oil workers in North Dakota, where higher wages quickly attracted more workers. But episodes like that are rare. Instead, for most Americans today the overwhelming reality is that skills that would have easily landed them a job in a healthier, more normal economy don't generate any callbacks today. There is nothing wrong with all or at least most of those unemployed workers. There is, however, something deeply wrong with the economy.
As I write this, we still have huge numbers of highly qualified engineers and programmers in this country, many of them a little older, many of them right here in Silicon Valley, who can't buy a decent job. Telling these highly qualified but unemployed engineers and others like them that they don’t have sufficient skills to land a job above minimum wage drives many of them right into the hands of President's Obama's political opponents. President Obama's opponents say: “The economy is not working and that is why you don’t have a job, elect us instead and we will fix it!” And President Obama's team responds: “You don’t have a job because you don’t have the right skills! It’s your fault! Vote for our team!” Now you tell me, who wins that argument? The answer: just look at the demographic groups where President Obama and the Democrats have lost so much support: the Democratic Party's victory coalition of 2008 has evaporated. We couldn't even get half of those voters to the polls in the last election.
The corporatist framing of the “skills gap” issue is even more problematic on a policy as opposed to political level. It undermines the sense of urgency the Obama administration could otherwise hope to marshall for critically important administration proposals calling for necessary investments in infrastructure, education, and sensible corporate tax reform. Each of those concerns becomes far less urgent once one accepts the Chamber of Commerce’s contention that, apart from too much regulation, the real problem facing the American economy today are all those unqualified American workers. By embracing Chamber of Commerce talking points on the skills gap the Obama administration undermines its own own far more significant domestic policy proposals as well as those of its Democratic Party allies in Congress. The administration is essentially taking wind out of its own sails. If the skills gap is really the big problem, why focus much attention on all those other pesky issues like making sure incredibly successful corporations pay their fair share in taxes? It is little wonder the corporate sector loves all this jibber jabber about how unqualified American workers are.
The main problem in our economy right now is the same as it has been since 2008: there is not enough economic demand. Period. If we had more economic demand (people able to buy stuff) employers would stop talking about all the supposedly open jobs they have and actually start hiring folks. They'd train new workers, as many businesses routinely do when customers are at the door. They'd even be passing out raises to keep workers from accepting a better offer across the street. Seen much of that lately? Neither have I.
I must confess an even deeper fear. I don’t have enough data yet to make a case I could publish in a peer-reviewed journal, and I am not even sure what research methodology would be appropriate, but I am worried that there may be a relationship between all this “skills gap” language and similar social tropes and now alarmingly high suicide rates of older American workers, particularly males over age 50.
In the Great Depression, it was the bankers and stock brokers who were throwing themselves out of open windows. In the quieter, longer lasting Great Recession the bankers did just fine but middle age and older, unemployed workers have been dropping like flies, killing themselves in record numbers across the country. Those in leadership positions have a special obligation to use language carefully, in ways that pull desperate, unemployed U.S. workers back from the brink of despair. Feeding the fears of older, unemployed workers that they, rather than our long-sputtering economy, are solely to blame for their plight can’t possibly be the best way to engage and lead the country.
What's more, when it comes to federal job training efforts the Obama administration has a much more compelling success story it can share about a program called TAACCCT, a story that is more deeply rooted in reality, a reality more Americans might recognize. The one where families and unemployed workers across the country struggle each and every day to afford the books and supplies they need to obtain a high-quality education. Now, that would be something worth talking about.
If you want to cut to the chase to see what this is all about click here.
Here's the Full Monty...
I helped oversee the design and implementation of President Obama's signature community college grant program, the $2 billion, 2009 Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training Act, otherwise known as TAACCCT. Measured by dollars appropriated, the little-known TAACCCT program is the second largest domestic discretionary spending program designed on President Obama's watch, second only to health care. Thanks to incomprehensibly poor messaging, though, it may also be President Obama's single least appreciated achievement. But more about that later.
First, about the name: TAACCCT.
It's a mouthful, I know. President Obama did not choose the TAACCCT name. He originally had something far spiffier in mind, "The American Graduation Initiative" (AGI). The President's ill-fated but much better-named AGI, introduced in 2009, was quickly shot down by Congress. But it was loaded with great and necessary proposals, many of which resurfaced later. One of the most intriguing sections of the doomed AGI called for allocating $50 million per year over 10 years, $500 million total, to create what the President described as a "new online, open-source clearinghouse of courses" for use by community college students and others seeking more education or job training. Congress refused to cough up the dough, however, and President Obama's completely unprecedented proposal to fund free, open educational resources (OER) for community college students was defeated before the idea ever got a fair hearing or, for that matter, any hearing.
Or so it seemed.
Fortunately, some people just won't quit. As a result, federal funds are now being spent to create and improve OER that anyone, including community college students, can use free of charge, including as substitutes for traditional textbooks and other costly learning resources.
This post tells part of the story about how all that happened. It also asks an important question: why don't President Obama and Vice President Biden ever talk about the only college cost containment solution that emerged during their administration that has actually worked (e.g. measurably cut college costs)?
First, some background:
Back in 2009, you will recall, D.C.'s power brokers were consumed with the knock-down, drag-out battle over health care, aka the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as "Obamacare" (which is what I call it because it is working and helps millions of Americans daily). What most people don't remember or realize about the end of the epic struggle over Obamacare is that the new health care law was ultimately enacted as part of a special legislative process called "reconciliation." The final measure that emerged to cross the finish line was actually called the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.
The education part of the reconciliation bill was almost completely lost amid the health care controversy in terms of public attention. But the education aspect was incredibly important because it will have a direct, positive, tangible impact on our lives and the lives of our children, our schools, and our communities for decades to come. What's more, most Americans still don't know anything about it yet.
The health care education reconciliation bill put in place far-reaching reforms to federal financial aid practices. One example: Bob Shireman, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education, emerged victorious in his decades-long crusade to eliminate the lucrative subsidies paid to private banks that provided federally insured student loans. Shutting down the big bank's long-running student loan racket saved taxpayers roughly $20 billion over 10 years.
Congress and the administration decided to use some of what I like to call the "Shireman savings" to bolster Pell Grants which, at the time, faced deep cuts. That move deftly shifted cash from bank profits directly into the pockets of students. Some of the Shireman savings were also used to reduce the federal budget deficit. And, at literally the last minute, Congress also agreed to allocate $2 billion of the savings from the student loan reforms to fund the little-known federal TAACCCT program. At the time, this was non-controversial enough to sail through the reconciliation process without attracting much opposition (unlike the President's original AGI proposal for an "open source clearinghouse of courses," which attracted considerable organized opposition from publishing and software firms. A fierce lobbying campaign conducted by a former member of congress, financed by those interests, had helped kill the first proposal in its crib).
TAACCCT funding did not initially attract opposition, in part, because TAACCCT was originally enacted decades earlier for an important but narrowly defined purpose: to fund job-training programs specifically for laid-off ("dislocated" in the Act's parlance) U.S. workers who could demonstrate they had lost jobs as a direct result of plant closures or similar events caused by competition from international trade. Under the Act, newly unemployed workers who were certified as having lost their jobs under such conditions -- a relatively small group -- typically got tuition assistance for retraining programs to help them move into a new occupation. The results were encouraging in some places, spotty in others. But once the federal job-training funds were spent, they were gone. What's more, each new crop of unemployed workers - and there have been many waves since the 1970's - could only hope that Congress would renew the federal job training appropriation. And either way, the vast majority of unemployed workers in the U.S. failed to qualify for assistance under TAACCCT regardless because of the program's narrow eligibility guidelines. For decades, TAACCCT meant absolutely nothing to most community college students and unemployed workers. That was about to change.
Once the $2 billion in new funding for TAACCCT was secure in 2009, senior Obama administration appointees in the Departments of Labor (DOL), Education, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy quickly convened an inter-agency TAACCCT task force led by DOL's Employment and Training Administration. The goal: modernize the antiquated TAACCCT program. As part of my responsibilities as a Senior Policy Advisor in the Department of Education I was assigned a leadership position on the TAACCCT task force by then-Under Secretary Martha Kanter. We wanted to find new ways to stretch scarce resources, including by using new technologies, open practices, and open educational resources to generate a much bigger bang for each federal buck. In short, we wanted to provide the highest quality education and job training opportunities possible to the greatest number of students and unemployed workers, including those certified as having lost jobs as a result of international trade. Our team was also determined to include new measures of accountability and transparency so educators could more quickly determine which job training programs were working best, radically improve failing developmental education programs, and more rapidly transfer high impact practices to help low performing programs improve.
But our biggest goal was even more audacious - and something that meant a lot to me personally. Our team wanted to touch off a revolution in how the federal government and other public agencies support education and job-training efforts in the digital age, particularly those based at community colleges, where job training tracks often converge with degree granting programs that help students earn academic credits that can be stacked into associate, bachelors and graduate degrees, certifications that typically lead to better long-term employment outcomes. To that end, we put new rules in place that required recipients of federal job training funds to release any new intellectual property they created with a license that permits the free use and continuous improvement of those learning materials by others. The term "new intellectual property" meant any new courses, training materials, textbooks and/or textbook equivalents, videos, tests, learning modules, assessments, tutorials, you name it. In the TAACCCT program, any new intellectual property developed with public funds must be made available to the public free of charge. If the public paid to create it, we reasoned, the public should own it.
Now, federal job training funds would no longer be spent entirely on one-time consumables, such as tuition or textbooks. Instead, taxpayers would get a much better deal, one that every American can touch, see and feel: personal access to all the learning resources developed with federal tax dollars. As a result of these new rules, recipients of federal TAACCCT grants, almost entirely community colleges, must now release any new intellectual property they create with these federal grant funds as Open Educational Resources (OER) which makes those learning resources freely available to everyone. That had never happened before. Not at the federal level. In fact, pretty much not at any level of government. Instead, the longstanding, customary practice has been to spend billions of dollars in public funds year after year to fill the coffers of commercial textbook publishers and, more recently, commercial software firms. The OER-friendly procurement policy reform, which generates renewable public digital learning assets, drew strong backing and praise from leaders on both the left, which loves anything that helps college students, and the right, which loves anything that helps home schoolers. That sort of bi-partisan agreement is something we see very rarely in Washington these days.
President Obama and Vice President Biden like to frequently draw attention to their efforts to promote job training through community colleges. But, despite the high levels of personal popularity both politicians enjoy among young people, they have have often stumbled in their efforts to connect with an American public that is bitter and angry over the state of the economy. Remarkably, Republicans successfully stripped Democrats of their majorities in both houses of Congress, in part, by riding public anger over the state of the economy even though GOP policies are arguably more responsible for putting America's middle-class into the soup. When it comes to talking about the economy, Democrats fumbled the ball in the last national election and, judging by the talking points now taking shape, odds are they will hand the next election to the GOP, too.
The way top administration officials describe TAACCCT is a vivid example of how to turn a winning hand into a loser. Whenever they mention TAACCCT, President Obama and Vice President Biden never mention OER. Instead, their talking points always revolve around the thoroughly debunked corporate claim, now official trope in Washington D.C., that there are millions of open jobs that no Americans are qualified to fill. The President and Vice President cling to this corporate created clunker, as they have from their very first days in office, even though it is not true. And yet, they repeat it pretty much every time either one of them mentions TAACCCT. They usually go on to highlight another valuable, but much less exciting and more traditional aspect of the program, touting TAACCCT's supposedly innovative requirement that grant recipients must collaborate with local employers to validate the curriculum offered to students in order to fill all those supposedly open jobs.
In this way, the administration makes two overlapping messaging blunders that turn gold into dross. First, they tout a supposed abundance of open jobs that informed, unbiased experts agree doesn't really exist. And then they completely, and I mean completely, overlook the most innovative, new and exciting part of the job training program they aim to promote.
This is, in my view, political and policy-making malpractice. Why? Because framing TAACCCT in this way alienates millions of qualified American job seekers who would easily land a job in a more normal economy. Here's how the Republicans talk about the economy: "You don't have a job because the economy is not working properly. We'll fix it. Vote for us!" And here's the competing message from the Obama administration and the Democrats: "You don't have a job because you're not qualified. You are part of the problem! Vote for us!" Now, who wins that argument? Insulting unemployed Americans just makes no sense. It's also entirely unnecessary and counterproductive, unless the need to curry favor with disingenuous corporate executives trumps all other concerns.
There is a much better choice to be had. When it comes to TAACCCT and job training, the Obama administration could instead share a success story that is more firmly rooted in a reality more Americans might recognize, the one where hard-pressed families across the country struggle each day to buy increasingly expensive college textbooks and access to commercial online learning resources that expire if students can't afford to buy a new password each term.
And yet despite those far more attractive messaging options the President and Vice President have never once (and I mean never, as in not even once) talked about the far more universally appealing OER aspect of their administration's modernized TAACCCT grants. Likewise and just as incredibly, the President and Vice President have taken no public notice whatsoever of the fast-growing global OER movement, even though many lower ranking administration officials have often done so. In fact, as far as I can tell, both President Obama and Vice President Biden have never even used the words "open educational resources" in public despite the fact that OER is the only solution advanced during the Obama administration that has led to any measurable reduction in the cost of a post-secondary credential. (Comparing this to another era, it's as if LBJ had never used the words "civil rights.") The result of this epic message failure: the highly successful effort by the Obama administration to give taxpayers much more value for their investments in job training through the use of OER is a victory unclaimed. When that story is finally understood over time, more Americans will appreciate how federal investments in OER make it easier and less expensive for job seekers and community college students to access the high-quality education and job training they need to live more prosperous and secure lives.
TAACCCT's OER, it should be noted, are just one part of what is now a much larger global OER movement that has already saved students millions of dollars and which could easily save students a billion dollars or more by 2016. Putting all that money back into the pockets of our neediest community college students and unemployed workers matters. In fact, I'd argue (and will continue to argue until I keel over blue in the face) that TAACCCT's inclusion of OER matters much more than harping on a very long tradition of community colleges and other public agencies working to improve linkages between schools and employers, which is a cause that has been embraced by virtually every president since FDR.
What really is new and exciting this time with regard to federal job-training efforts is exactly what President Obama and Vice President Biden never mention: the federal government is now funding OER that can be freely used, adapted, improved, and customized by every interested school, college, community group, student, teacher and job training provider in the country. The OER can even be used by for-profit companies that want to integrate open learning resources into new or existing commercial products and services. It's availability can also be smartly integrated into U.S. foreign policy efforts, an effort Secretary of State Hillary Clinton initiated during her last days in office.
Unfortunately, the Departments of Labor and Education have no money to market or advertise the availability of the TAACCCT-funded, free OER that just recently started to become available and which will continue to roll out online in waves over the next few years. Likewise, no federal funds have been allocated to explain how these new open educational resources improve and transform higher education and job training programs by making the best ones far less expensive, more ubiquitously available, and subject to collaborative improvement over time. What's more, from this day forward these free, open learning resources will always be immediately available and renewable for each new generation of learners, unemployed workers, and others who need new skills. That story, the role OER plays in improving President Obama's signature federal job training program, TAACCCT, has been almost entirely overlooked.
Some of us recently decided to start fixing that problem.