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Gordon Lafer, The Job Training Charade.

(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 2002)

IN THE 1980s the rising tides of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism rocked the foundations of the welfare state in all of the advanced western nations. Two prongs of the attack on the modes of regulation that characterized the Fordist/Keynesian era were cutbacks in the generosity and coverage of welfare and unemployment benefits and a retreat from the use of direct state intervention to promote full employment through job creation programs. Reduction of welfare and unemployment insurance expenditures and the fight against inflation became top priorities. Given that poverty and unemployment remained serious issues, politicians needed a policy that would at the very least give the appearance that they still cared about the millions of people who were unemployed or underemployed in part-time or temporary jobs, or in positions that simply paid too little for them to break out of poverty. This is the context in which governments, ranging from social democratic through to right-wing conservative in terms of their proclaimed leanings, latched onto job training as the solution to the problems of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty. The idea that these problems stemmed from the characteristics of individuals rather than from failures of the market was given academic respectability by (mostly) economists who argued that they were rooted in a lack of human capital or in a mismatch between the skills of those looking for decently paid work and the positions that were available. Thus, what had once been seen as deficiencies in the workings of labour markets came to be seen and treated as deficiencies in those individuals unable to make a go of it in the new laissez-faire world.

Gordon Lafer provides a detailed and well-argued critique of this ideology and policy though an examination of the job training system in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. He analyzes both the theoretical and empirical evidence regarding the efficacy of job training as a solution to unemployment, underemployment, and poverty, and the political and ideological dimensions of the job training dogma. He begins with a devastating deconstruction of the commonsense idea that there are plenty of jobs to go around if only the unemployed and the poor had the motivation and the skills to fill them. US politicians like to use the fact that at any given time there are "help wanted" ads to support their claim that the issue is not a lack of jobs but rather an absence of motivation and/or a mismatch between the skills possessed by the unemployed and those employers need. Lafer shows that the number of decently-paid jobs that were available in the US over the last twenty years has never been more than a fraction of the number needed to raise the poor beyond the poverty level. The problem has always been a shortage of positions that pay wages sufficient to lift people out of poverty.

Lafer also provides a powerful critique of the skills-mismatch hypothesis. Very briefly, the skills-mismatch hypothesis argues that as technology and labour markets change, segments of the population will find that the skills they possess are no longer in demand. They must be able and willing to constantly upgrade and change through endless education and training or face low pay and unemployment. This argument has been used to explain unemployment and the fall in real wages that many segments of the labour force experienced over the last 25 years. One of the key assumptions in the skills-mismatch hypothesis is that employment rates and wages or salaries are strongly correlated with levels and kinds of education. Lafer shows that in fact, except for certain professional positions that require specialized and highly controlled education and that comprise a very small portion of the labour market, variables such as gender, age, race, and whether or not workers are unionized, are more important determinants of the levels of employment and wages than are levels of education. Moreover, there is a surplus of well educated people condemned to toil in jobs for which they are overqualified. Finally, he reviews the substantial evidence from many studies of particular manifestations of the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA). This shows that job training does not work, especially as a means of moving people out of poverty. The success stories are relatively rare while failures have been documented repeatedly. As the negative evidence accumulates, however, those who see job training as the panacea to a range of problems become increasingly vague as to exactly what job training is supposed to accomplish. From the provision of specific, marketable technical skills, the rhetoric has moved towards loosely defined ideas about instilling desirable behavioural characteristics in those stuck at the bottom of the labour market.

In addition to the fact that job training fits with neoconservative social values and neoliberal economic dogmas, in the US the promotion of job training at the expense of direct government support for the poor and unemployed served Republican political goals. Lafer details how the JTPA in the US provided a way for the Republican administrations of Reagan and Bush (senior) to claim to be acting to reduce poverty and unemployment, while they were cancelling and/or reducing direct funding for anti-poverty and make-work projects, many of which were targeted at areas (cities for example) that were Democratic strongholds or that were controlled and administered by Democratic supporters.

Under the welfare reform measures, which Republican administrations began and which Clinton saw through to completion, job training has become a means for enforcing discipline on the most disadvantaged segments of the population. Indeed, by the beginning of the new century, the job training "charade," as Lafer refers to it, is largely about social control. It is at one level a new version of the culture of poverty thesis that was popular in the 1960s and as such is consistent with the return of the "blame-the-victim" mentality that is a core feature of neoconservatism.

Lafer's book focuses on the US but it is very relevant on a more global scale. The skills mismatch hypothesis underlies the OECD's recommendations about labour market flexibility (see its 1994 OECD Jobs Study: Facts, Analysis, Strategies). The International Labour Organization has also endorsed the neoliberal emphasis on skills mismatch and human capital formation in its recent publications (see its World Employment Report 1998-99). Of course, the critique of the training paradigm has also been developing in other places. Unfortunately, Lafer does not locate the US experience or his own analysis in this wider context. There is a rich relevant literature emanating from a variety of other national contexts. Many elements of the critique of job training have already been developed in Canada, for example, by David Livingstone and Stephen McBride among others. Nonetheless, this is a valuable and powerful critique of an ideology that has become a global dogma in the last twenty years and the policies that have derived from it in the US.

Thomas Dunk

Lakehead University
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Author:Dunk, Thomas
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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