A Skills Development Consensus — If You Can Keep It

A Skills Development Consensus — If You Can Keep It

Earlier this month, I participated in a National Skills Coalition (NSC) panel discussion focusing on results from an NSC-sponsored survey of public attitudes towards skills training. In aggregate, 93 percent of Americans favor increased investment in skill training. According to the poll, when presented with a range of economic policy options, respondents rated skill training higher than middle class tax cuts (85 percent), a jobs guarantee (85 percent) or a $15 per hour minimum wage (66 percent).

Of course, being against technical skills is like opposing motherhood or baseball — a sign of questionable judgment or grave moral failure. As always, the devil is in the details. Digging into the poll numbers reveals a more complex picture. Democrats (44 percent) and African Americans (52 percent) said they were “strongly” supportive of such spending while strong support among Republicans, Independents, whites and Latinos was significantly more muted (28, 29, 34 and 34 percent, respectively).

The poll did not explore this enthusiasm gap. However, it is reasonable to assume that some of the difference is a greater degree of skepticism about government programs generally among whites, Republicans, and conservative-leaning Independents. The lower level of Latino enthusiasm is somewhat more puzzling especially when juxtaposed to strong enthusiasm among African-Americans. Both groups are playing catch-up economically, so why wouldn’t they be equally enthusiastic about programs designed to help them advance in jobs and careers?

This mystery is partially resolved by other questions relating to supportive services for individuals receiving job training. Over 90 percent of Democrats approved of expanding access to welfare, food stamps, and other anti-poverty programs for individuals receiving training. Similar support was found for supportive services such as child care, transportation, and employment counseling. Majorities were less robust among Republicans, at 76 percent (expanded welfare services) and 69 percent (supportive services).

These divergent reactions to benefits and supportive services point to an underlying weakness in the skills training consensus. In our current ultra-low unemployment economy, many of those seeking to join the workforce have serious, non-work related barriers to go along with significant educational and technical skill deficits. Ensuring success for many of these workers means finding ways of connecting them to services that will ease the transition to full-time employment while avoiding the perception — or reality — that training is another form of welfare.

Aggravating this potential challenge is the mismatch between what technical skills programs are producing and what employers say they need. During the panel conversation, I suggested that as important as technical skills are, such training doesn’t address employers’ biggest concern: the shortage of soft- or non-cognitive skills (e.g, communication, teamwork and perseverance) in the workforce. Surprisingly, this observation provoked the audience’s only moment of spontaneous applause. Training providers know their programs can only take people so far and that soft-skills are the foundation for long-term labor market success. However, inclusion of soft-skills focused training and supports also tend to nudge technical skill programs closer to the realm of social services.

Americans are “boot-strappy” people. They want to help but they also want sweat-equity in return. To maintain public support, it will be important to blend rhetoric and policies that affirm and support individual aspiration and shared (private and public) responsibility without dividing progressives and conservatives over welfare. At the same time, it will be necessary to acknowledge that success in training and employment often depends on factors like soft-skills and supportive services that undergird workforce success. If these factors are not carefully balanced, they will put both participant success and the national skills consensus at risk.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he conducts research on workforce, criminal justice reform, and poverty.

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