Federal Opinion

A Presidential Agenda for the Americans Left Behind

By Marc Tucker — April 07, 2016 6 min read
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In recent administrations, both when Democrats and Republicans were in the White House, the senior figures in both parties and their economic advisors agreed that free trade was in the country’s best interest. Of course, everyone understood that this was true overall, not necessarily for every individual involved. Governments, in theory, should be looking out for the greatest good for the greatest number. There would always be some who would not benefit, who would get left behind.

And there are. Most are poorly educated people with relatively few skills...and they are angry. Their parents and grandparents were steel workers, auto workers, textile workers, coal miners, shoemakers and furniture makers. And all the people who worked in the neighborhood banks, shops, laundries, diners, bowling alleys and movie theaters that served those who worked in the mills and mines. They stepped into their parents’ shoes, expecting to earn at least what their parents earned, to take their place as the wage earners in their families, to have the respect of their spouses, children, and communities. They had not gone to college, but they wanted their kids to go.

But it didn’t work out that way. The textile jobs went from Maine to South Carolina on their way to Mexico. So did shoemaking. The furniture jobs went from North Carolina to China. Detroit and Flint became ghost towns as car manufacturing went south and then offshore. Consumer electronics and appliances went first to Japan and South Korea and then to Taiwan and China. Towns, villages, entire counties and states became shells of their former selves, wiped out by low-cost competition from East Asia, South Asia, Eastern Europe, South America and even Africa. The jobs that did not go offshore went to automated machines, machines that were making other people wealthy, but not them.

The people who used to make our cars, pants, shirts, tables, chairs, shoes, beds, TVs, radios, home video recorders, towels, electric lights, toilets, dishwashers, stoves, clothes washers, stereos, outboard motors and children’s toys made them no longer. They lost their homes and their jobs, had their cars repossessed, had to move in with relatives, could not afford to send their kids to college or get decent medical care for their family or even feed them three square meals a day. Some started taking drugs or overdosed on alcohol. The most depressed committed suicide.

If I were running for President, I would make it clear that changing this picture is one of my top priorities. It is about the economy but not about an economy that works for the country as a whole, while leaving many Americans out; it is about good jobs for all Americans. It is not about continuing a culture of dependency; it is about making sure that everyone who wants work can get it. It is not about fighting over who gets the jobs that are left; it is about creating a lot of great jobs in a high-skill economy. Making America great again ought not to mean throwing our weight around like a schoolboy tough; it ought to mean earning our place in the world the old-fashioned way, by being damned good at what we do.

But I would also make it clear that in today’s economy, being willing to work hard is not enough. There are literally billions of people in other parts of the world who are willing to work hard and many of them are willing to work for much less money then we are. In today’s global economy, the only way to make it is to work hard, and to work smart, too. In today’s world, it is the highly educated and well-trained who are cleaning up. The United States used to have the best-educated workforce in the world, and now it has one of the least well-educated workforces in the industrialized world. Our next President should pledge to change that. There is nothing more important for our country’s future than to make sure that we once again have the best-educated and best-trained and most creative workforce in the world.

If I were running for President, I would offer the American people a deal: If you are willing to do everything in your power to get the best education and training you can get to do the high-skill jobs that need to be done, then I will turn over heaven and earth to make sure you get the education and training you need at a price you can afford to do the kind of work you want to do.

Chinese and Indians and Hungarians and Chileans and South Africans and Singaporeans are your competitors now, and they are working just as hard as they can to work smarter than you. The only way you and your children are going to succeed is to work at least as smart as them, if not smarter.

But the next President has a long road to climb to get us there. In the Carter administration, the federal government spent more than five times as much as it does now on job training for American workers. We need to restore those funds and make job training one of our top priorities. We must modernize job training, get employers deeply involved in designing it and supporting it, so that the people who are trained will get the good jobs that employers can’t find anyone to fill. We need to set up apprenticeship systems for young people and old. We need to set up a system so that every region of the country can develop its own economic development plan and get the money it needs to train the people needed to make that plan come alive and work. All over the country, good jobs in the technical aspects of health care, alternative energy, advanced manufacturing, IT systems, civil engineering and other high-paying fields are going begging because employers cannot find the people with the skills they need. We must change that.

We also need to tackle the unemployment system so that it takes account of the fact that people often work multiple part-time jobs, and many can only get intermittent employment. We should set it up so that people aren’t penalized for getting a part-time job while they are looking for the right job. We need to make sure that people who are willing to work hard are supported while they are looking for work or are getting the education and training they need to get that next job, although we should not support people who just want to be on the dole or are not willing to take a decent job or engage in full time education and training and work toward a credential. We need to change the tax system to provide income support to hard-working, low-income families to reward work, not sloth.

For a lot of people who have seen their jobs disappear, there are no jobs where they live. The government ought to be willing to pay for them to go to a job interview in another part of their state or region if that is where the jobs are. And it ought to be willing to help local officials develop a sound plan to bring new investment to their part of the country.

Because much of our sense of our own worth comes from the work we do, the contribution we make, the skills we use, the jobs we have, government ought to be about making sure that every adult who is willing to get the education and skills they need to get a good job has an opportunity to get those skills and that education and that job. Our society and our country cannot possibly be any stronger than the ordinary working people who make it up, the bedrock on which we all depend. The next President needs to do whatever it takes to help Americans get the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a world that now runs on education and skills.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.