The Trump Administration’s Apprenticeship Strategy Leads to a Dead End

The idea that apprenticeship programs, especially for industries that hire people with skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM skills), is widely accepted and promoted, so the Trump proposal is not out of the mainstream of thinking about barriers to employment and wage growth.  However, expecting much of an impact on employment and wage growth from the Trump administration’s turn of attention to apprenticeship programs will only hand you disappointment.

Over the last several decades, American business and government support for workforce training has declined dramatically, as shown by declining funding levels.

At a time when employers are struggling to find the skilled workers they need to fill available jobs, funding to train workers has dropped dramatically. Since just 2010, federal education and training programs have been cut by more than $1 billion.

Federal funding webpage, National Skills Coalition.  Accessed June 15, 2017.

The incidence of training in the previous 12 months fell roughly 28 percent overall during the period between 2001 and 2009. The results show that the decline in employer-paid training was wide-spread, affecting most industries, occupations, and demographic groups.

Jeff Waddoups, Did Employers in the United States Back Away from Skills Training during the Early 2000s? Seminar Invitation, Center for Work, Organization, and Wellbeing, Griffith University.  Accessed June 15, 2017.

The Trump administration’s proposal does not restore former levels of funding, much less move America to a new level of support for apprenticeship programs.  The reason is in plain sight, but studiously “undiscovered” by political and business leaders: American businesses are no longer dependent on a skilled American workforce; dozens of high and middle affluence nations are training skilled workers who then seek work through globally organized recruiting institutions, and then either migrate across national boundaries to workplaces or work across national boundaries without physically moving.  In most cases, American businesses can offer these globally available skilled workers more of what they want than can businesses in most other nations, so American businesses generally get the workers they really need.

In addition to sourcing skilled workers from a rapidly growing global pool of skilled workers, American businesses are turning to a rapidly growing supply of robots that are becoming increasing skilled with each passing month and decreasingly costly to own.  Robots may not yet be able to take over all skill intensive activities of workers, but competent management teams can (and do) orchestrate teams of human workers and robots so as to hold human staffing steady or even reduce it while still increasing output.

These are the stubborn 21st century realities that no feasible set of U.S. policies can undo or overcome.  Despite the widely held belief to the contrary, we are actually living in a world economy weighed down by an oversupply of skilled labor.  Fortunately, this fact becomes more apparent with every passing day, but, unfortunately, for a very disturbing reason.  As skilled workers around the world are pushed out into the cold because of oversupply with no employment prospects that match the expectations they were told to have, more and more are turning their talents to cyber crime, to designing murderous weapons on an ad hoc basis, and to building terrorist organizations.

A Background Note

The use of apprenticeships and recognizing the value in them goes back thousands of years.  More relevantly, U.S. states have long recognized the value of apprenticeship programs and supported and promoted them through legislation; the federal government has done so since 1937.

Since time immemorial, people have been transferring skills from one generation to another in some form of apprenticeship. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi provided that artisans teach their crafts to youth.

History of Apprenticeship, Washington State Department of Industries.  Accessed June 15, 2017.

Since 1937, the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training has worked closely with employer and labor groups, vocational schools, state apprenticeship agencies, and others concerned with apprenticeship programs in U.S. industry. It has field representatives in the 50 States.

History of Apprenticeship, Washington State Department of Industries.  Accessed June 15, 2017.

The point, of course, is that there is nothing new and noteworthy in the Trump administration’s apprenticeship proposal.  They are just trotting out old ideas that seem new because they have been pushed aside long enough for many American’s to think they are seeing something new and untried.

The Slow-Growth World Economy and the Degradation of Formal Wage Employment

SOURCE ITEMS

“We think of the ‘new neutral’ as a natural evolution from the ‘new normal’,” Executive Vice President Richard Clarida said in a telephone interview, likening the firm’s new outlook to a car stuck in neutral gear. “The ‘new neutral’ looking forward is a story about a global economy that isn’t recovering, it’s a global economy that’s converging to trend rates of growth that will be sluggish.”

Mary Childs, Pimco’s ‘New Normal’ Thesis Morphs Into ‘New Neutral’, Bloomberg, May 13, 2014.

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What is new – and distressing – is that developing economies’ low-productivity segments are not shrinking; on the contrary, in many cases, they are expanding.

Dani Rodrik, The Growing Divide Within Developing Economies, Project Syndicate, APR 11, 2014.

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Formal employment creation in Colombia is taxed with social security contributions and payroll taxes that equal roughly 60% of the base salary for each worker.

Domingo Cavallo and Rodrigo Botero, Proposal – Incentives to Formal Employment: A Proposal for Colombia, Global Economic Symposium 2014.

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But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing.

Thomas Friedman, It’s a 401(k) World, New York Times, April 30, 2013.

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America’s shadow economy includes activities that are actually illicit — prostitution and drug dealing — and more benign jobs like working construction for a day for cash, or even the $2 a kid that Kalmes gets for walking neighborhood children to the bus. Added together, economists estimate $2 trillion could be involved.

Joshua Zumbrun, Shadow Economy Shows Joblessness Less Than Meets U.S. Eye, Bloomberg, March 20, 2013.

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A study for the Small Business Administration, a government body, found that regulations in general add $10,585 in costs per employee.

Over-regulated America, The Economist, Feb 18th 2012.

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Informal employment in Californian construction has increased by 400 percent since 1972. The ranks of the informal swell with each economic recession, but most recently a larger share of workers have stayed in the informal sector because formal sector jobs have not been recovered. Four years after the end of the Great Recession, the industry has recovered only 66 percent of the jobs lost in the formal sector. –

Yvonne Yen Liu, Daniel Flaming, Patrick Burns, Sinking Underground: The Growing Informal Economy in California Construction, Economic Roundtable, September 2014.

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The result has been a downsizing of expectations. By almost two to one — 64 percent to 33 percent — Americans say the U.S. no longer offers everyone an equal chance to get ahead, according to the latest Bloomberg National Poll. The lack of faith is especially pronounced among those making less than $50,000 a year, with close to three-quarters in the Dec. 6-9 survey saying the economy is unfair.

Rich Miller and Michelle Jamrisko, Americans on Wrong Side of Pay Gap Run Out of Means to Cope, Bloomberg.com, By December 30, 2013.

COMMENTS

The legitimacy of a formal wage employment system for working people comes from an implicit guarantee that workers get a fair share of national income. This guarantee is necessarily implicit because to make it explicit would require imposing substantial constraints and costs on the owners and managers of business enterprises. Public policy would have to define the primary and overriding obligation of the private sector to be providing employment or income to all working people in place of the existing mandate to provide maximum income to investors.

In most of the world’s low wealth political jurisdictions, opposition to creating and strengthening formal wage employment systems is generally very strong, especially among the rich and powerful of those jurisdictions.   Both the rich and a majority of workers in those jurisdictions understand that their profits and jobs can be quickly eliminated in a world economy in which businesses and workers in other jurisdictions will underbid them if given the opportunity.

In the post World War II decades, the rich and powerful in the world’s affluent nations were less often actively opposed to high cost formal wage employment systems, preferring the cost of accommodation to the cost of ruthless government suppression of conflict.

This accommodative stance has been disappearing as economic globalization has dramatically increased the competition for resources and markets faced by owners and investors in wealthier jurisdictions like the U.S. In recent decades, the accommodative stances common to business communities across the affluent nations of the world have been replaced with aggressive political campaigns to substantially reduce the high costs of the formal wage employment systems. Working people in the world’s affluent nations have lost benefits, suffered wage reductions, lost union organization protections, lost funding for government agencies charged with monitoring workplace conditions and labor market practices, and become more exposed to exploitative and unsafe working conditions.

Working people have been nudged into and forced into less desirable forms of employment (including informal sector employment, family employment, self-employment in petty trades, coerced employment, and employment in illegal activities). In a reversal of trends a few decades ago, formal wage employment now accounts for a declining share of total employment.

This trend is likely to continue because global ecological and institutional conditions impose a structural ceiling on the global rate of growth. As a result, global competition will intensify and national economic policy efforts to restore high rates of economic growth will fail much more often than they succeed. Adopting accommodative relationships with working people will not reemerge as an option for even the most successful of the world’s businesses.

Formal wage employment standards will continue to deteriorate because the world’s business owners and investors will put more pressure on governments to cut tax revenues and weaken labor market and workplace regulations as they fight for global market shares. Working people in various places will attempt to resist but will mostly lose these battles because they are, at heart, global political battles in which owners and investors have a massive advantage.

At the moment, the world’s working people are fragmented and disorganized, both across and within nations. Despite global business competition, the world’s owners and investors are much better organized into a global political force. They fund large transnational organizations to develop and pursue shared goals (e.g., more trade, easier money, lower costs) to a far greater extent than do the world’s working communities.

In the long run, this could change, but not unless the world’s working people find ways to politically checkmate the world’s owners and investors. That may or may not happen. What is certain is that the future of work is up for grabs.

(For a perspective on the slowdown in global economic growth see my article, Replacing the Concept of Externalities to Analyze Constraints on Global Economic Growth and Move Toward a New Economic Paradigm.)

The Growing Skills Shortage: A Real Problem or A Politically Expedient Invention

SOURCE ITEMS

Employers have long complained that graduates do not have the skills they need.

A study released in November by Eurofound, the research arm of the European Union, showed that despite the recession, almost 40 percent of companies reported difficulty in finding workers with the right skills, compared with 37 percent in 2008 and 35 percent in 2005.

The issue peaked last summer, when PayPal’s chief executive in Ireland, Louise Phelan, stoked controversy by acknowledging that the company had recruited from 19 other countries for 500 positions in its operations center in Dundalk because of a lack of foreign-language skills among Irish nationals. This summer, Fujitsu, which employs 800 people in Ireland, revealed that it had had to hire most of its Ph.D.-level experts from abroad.

Liz Alderman, Unemployed in Europe Stymied by Lack of Technology Skills, New York Times, January 3, 2014.

COMMENTS

What is the right wage for a business facing stiff global competition: the lowest wage, of course!  Note the last paragraph above.  Apparently, PayPal and Fujitsu did get the workers they needed.

Let’s try another interpretation.  The high tech jobs are created mostly in very large corporations.  Those corporations recruit workers globally, regardless of where their operations are located.  Note this paragraph from the same story:

“Multinational technology and social media companies kept investing, lured by Ireland’s ultralow 12.5 percent corporate tax rate and an English-speaking work force.”

It’s a possibility that corporate CEO’s are extremely unlikely to say to a host country like Ireland, “We like your low taxes here, but we can import cheaper workers from other countries — and we will.”  Isn’t it very likely that the real issue for corporate leaders is that the hourly wages of educated workers in more affluent countries are not the lowest wages they can pay and still be successful?

My bet is that CEOs present the issue as a labor supply problem (skills shortage) as political cover and to shift the cause of high unemployment (even for well educated workers) onto the workers themselves and away from the corporations that are making the actual hiring and firing decisions.   My bet is that the world economy actually has plenty of well educated and skilled workers, but the world’s corporations are producing too few jobs to employ them all.  They just won’t ‘fess up.

What is really in short supply are jobs that pay decent wages by North American and Western European standards.   Too much supply (of skilled workers) in a world of too little demand = falling wages.  (Note the concessions the Boeing workers in Seattle, WA just made to keep their jobs!)

Global Shortage of Skilled Workers is a Myth; Global Failure to Create Jobs is the Reality

SOURCE ITEMS

Chart-Global Working Age Population, 2000-2010

Data Source: World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations.

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Last May I wrote about Coursera — co-founded by the Stanford computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng — just after it opened. … When I visited last May, about 300,000 people were taking 38 courses taught by Stanford professors and a few other elite universities. Today, they have 2.4 million students, taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international ones.

 Thomas Friedman, Revolution Hits the Universities, New York Times, January 26, 2013.

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According to UNESCO data, 177 million students participated in formal tertiary education around the world in 2010, an increase of 77 million students since 2000, or 77% (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2011).

Education at a Glance 2012, OECD indicators. OECD Publishing, September 2012.

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The Washington-based bank yesterday projected the world economy will expand 2.4 percent, down from a June forecast of 3 percent, after growing 2.3 percent in 2012. It halved its forecast for Japan, cut the U.S. projection by 0.5 percentage point and predicted a second year of contraction in the euro region. It also lowered projections for emerging markets led by Brazil, India and Mexico.

Sandrine Rastello, World Bank Cuts Growth Forecasts as Developed Nations Lose Steam, Bloomberg News, January 16, 2013.  

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In recent years, the proportion of high-skill migrants has been rising – from 19 percent in 1980 in the United States, to 26 percent in 2010, for example – as immigrants filled demand that domestic supply alone could not match.

The World at Work: Jobs, Pay, and Skills for 3.5 Billion People, McKinsey Global Institute, June 2012.

COMMENTS

The world economy has no shortage of workers and no shortage of well educated and skilled workers.  It has a devastating shortage of jobs for people of working age.

The brutal reality is that insufficient global job creation is the problem.

Flooding the world’s labor force with more and more highly educated and skilled workers will not solve that problem.  It will only expand the population of underemployed and inappropriately-employed college educated workers.

If a shortage of skilled workers really did exist, the world’s global corporations, which are awash in record profits and holding large amounts of cash, would be spending much more on worker training and aggressively lobbying governments to increase investments in higher education.  Instead, it’s only lip service for investments in education and training and, in richer countries like the U.S., lobbying for more visas for the world’s growing supply of skilled workers.

A new governmental approach to job creation is the solution.

Governments must shift from passively accepting private sector job creation failure to actively driving private sector job creation decisions.  To begin, they must stop competing with each other for the investment attention of global corporations and start working together to demand more job creation from those corporations.

U.S. Workers Are Settling Into a Global Era of Fewer Good Jobs and Declining Incomes

ITEMS FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

Chart-Missing Civilian Labor Force
Source: Andrew Sum, et al (see citation below quote)

“Following 2007, the pool of hidden unemployed has risen steadily and strongly from 4.7 million in 2007 to close to 6.5 million in 2011; a rise close to 1.8 million or 40%. This was the third largest annual average number of hidden unemployed in the 45 year history for which such data exist dating back to 1967.”

Andrew Sum, Mykhaylo Trubskyy, with  Sheila Palma, The Great Recession of 2007-2009, the Lagging Jobs Recovery, and the Missing 5-6 Million National Labor Force Participants in 2011: Why We Should Care, Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies, January 2012

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Change in Average Hourly Earnings of U.S. Employees, 2006 – 2011

Chart-Average Hourly EarningsSource: Historical Data, Current Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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“Spain’s jobless rate for people ages 16 to 24 is approaching 50 percent. Greece’s is 48 percent, and Portugal’s and Italy’s, 30 percent. Here in Britain, the rate is 22.3 percent, the highest since such data began being collected in 1992. (The comparable rate for Americans is 18 percent.)

Thomas Landon, For London Youth, Down and Out Is Way of Life, New York Times, February 15, 2012

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Looking at the changes within countries over time, the overall long-term trend is obvious: the majority of countries have witnessed increases in low-wage employment over the past 15 years. Overall, figure 20 shows that, since the second half of the 1990s, low pay has increased in about two-thirds of countries for which data are available (25 out of 37 countries). … While it is too soon for an assessment of the short-term effect of the crisis on low pay (since few countries have published their data on low pay in 2009), there is little reason to believe that a global recession will have brought about any improvement in the overall situation of low-paid workers.

Global Wage Report 2010/11: Wage policies in times of crisis, International Labour Organization, December, 2010

COMMENTS

In a free market economy, buyers and sellers negotiate prices.  When buyers have lots of choices and sellers don’t, buyers have the leverage to push prices downward.

We have seen this in the U.S. housing market: huge numbers of houses are on the market and an army of builders are waiting in the wings to put even more houses on the market – the ratio of sellers to buyers is very high.  Thus, even though houses are beginning to sell a little better, prices are still falling.

The same thing has happened in the global labor market: the ratio of available workers (sellers) to employers with jobs to fill (buyers) is very high, and it will stay high.  There are several structural reasons:

  • the integration of national economies into a single world economy based on free market principles has made huge numbers of unemployed and underemployed workers newly available to the world’s major employers and many intermediate size employers
  • expanding national education systems are producing a growing supply of skilled workers for the global labor market
  • the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 produced large numbers of business failures and consolidations, reducing the number of employers competing for the growing global supply of workers
  • the production of a given volume of goods and services continues to require fewer and fewer workers as machines and computers do more of the brute work and more of the routine thinking
  • global consumption of goods and services is not growing fast enough to reduce the ratio of available workers to available jobs.

Thus, even though hiring in the U.S. is beginning to get a little better, the bargaining position of U.S. workers, even those who are unionized, continues to deteriorate.  Given this trend, either real U.S. wages and incomes will decline much further, or rates of unemployment, underemployment, and non-participation of working age people in the workforce will remain high.