Why information on worker re-training is important – and what we should do with it

Data and information is the life blood of the I-Cubed Economy. Yet, in the Federal government data collection is often treated as a lonely step-child. When Congress looks to cut, studies and data are one of the first things to go. Now comes a perfect example of why such actions are penny-wise-and-pound-foolish — in today’s Wall Street Journal (Jobs Study Is Too Late for Debate on Trade).
Congress is currently debating new trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama. A key element in the discussions is continued funding of the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program. As well all know, there are benefits and costs to such trade agreements. Like it or not, companies are exposed to increased competition and workers displaced. The TAA program is meant to buffer the negative effects of trade agreements. Yet, the debate on the program is flying blind. As the Journal reports, “The lack of up-to-date government data on how effective the $1 billion-a-year program is at helping the unemployed find well-paying work has hobbled efforts to identify and make improvements.” Specifically, a study by the Labor Department originally due in 2007 will be ready at the end of the year — after the debate is over.
I can’t say that budget cuts to research and statistical analysis have directly caused the delays in the study. But there has been a pattern over the decades of “cut-research-first.”
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There may be a bit of hope in this situation, however. I have long advocated for a broader overhaul of our working training programs. There are two problems. First is the fragmented nature of the programs. TAA is a perfect example. It only covers those who can get certified that their unemployment was due to trade agreements. That is a narrow class of workers who need re-training due to economic shifts. This lead to the situation I encountered back in my Senate staff days where auto workers were eligible for TAA assistance because of increased auto imports, but the guys who drove the auto delivery rigs (taking the cars to the dealers) were not (even though their jobs were directly tied to domestic production as well).
The rationale is that the government should pay for re-training for unemployment caused by government actions (i.e. trade agreements). That is an outmoded view in an economy where human capital is one of the most important ingredients to economic prosperity. And we have gradually been expanding worker re-training — but is a piecemeal fashion. We need a better overall training policy.
Second, the system is focused on re-training. We need a system that continually upgrades worker skills so they stay competitive and don’t lose their jobs in the first place. We know that preventative medicine is better and more economical than waiting for illness to strike. Our training system needs a big dose of the preventative mindset.
Maybe the release of the Labor Department study will help turn attention to the broader issue once the narrow trade debate has worked itself out. I like to remain optimistic.

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