You Go To Work With the Workforce You Have

Not, as Donald Rumsfeld would have said, the one you’d like to have. (Or, as the little boy asked his mother after first seeing a classical ballet, “Why don’t they just get taller girls?”) We keep seeing all sorts of opining about how, in order to reduce unemployment, we need to have a smarter, more flexible workforce to participate in the new information marketplace. And admittedly, the diminishing proportion of American-born graduates from US science and engineering programs is scary, and betokens a deplorable trend to laziness and anti-intellectualism in our younger generations ( See

But we cannot educate our way to full employment. Yes, more employers are requiring college degrees, or at least “some college” for new hires. Often the jobs for which such higher education is required are pretty much the same ones our parents got on the strength of a high school diploma and on-the-job training. But there are still plenty of jobs out there with just such requirements (See 2009/02/23/stimulus ) A lot of them get filled by immigrants, often at substandard wages. And a lot of the “information marketplace” jobs are also getting filled either by immigrants, or by foreigners with graduate degrees telecommuting from their home countries.

These uncomfortable facts tell us that the American employer’s current reluctance to “create jobs” for American workers does not just reflect the inadequate educational system that produces them. American business isn’t looking for better-educated American workers. It also isn’t looking for competent blue-collar American workers. In fact, it isn’t looking for American workers. Or at any rate, it isn’t looking for workers demanding a living wage in the American economy. It isn’t looking for workers who demand the American Dream: home ownership, two cars, health insurance, retirement benefits, paid vacations and sick time, and enough money to send the kids to college, all in the USA. The nice thing about hiring immigrants is that they will accept a lower standard of living. The nice thing about hiring foreigners in non-European countries is that they often have a lower cost of living.

The oncoming new economic paradigm is the Arabian petroplutocracies, countries that have succeeded in pretty much abolishing poverty among their own citizens through oil subsidies. All this means is that they have had to import a whole population of poor people from other countries (mostly Asia) to do poor people’s jobs.

Assuming that all American workers are either able or willing to undergo the education necessary to fit them for the “information marketplace,” doing it would not eliminate poverty. It would just put us in the position of Saudi Arabia, having to import poor people to care for our children, elders, and invalids, collect the garbage, deliver the mail, and clean the streets.

Aside from which, trying to educate our way out of unemployment requires too many unsustainable assumptions to be worth the trouble. Assume we had the resources to run the educational system that could produce universal scientific and technical literacy. Yeah, right. Assume that, even if we did, all American workers, young and old, were willing and able to achieve such literacy. Yeah, sure. The one assumption no one is even trying to suggest is: assume that American business were willing to pay their workers enough to live like middle-class Americans. In your dreams. We’ve already given up on the “family wage”—one which will enable one person to support an entire family in the style to which the American Dream once made us accustomed. Now we are expected to forfeit the “demi-family wage”—one which would enable two adults to provide for their family at that level.

Trying to turn the American workforce into what the “information marketplace” is looking for, assuming it were possible, would just give us a higher class of unemployed people. Malcolm X, of all people, once proclaimed in a somewhat different context that being the best-educated person in the unemployment line was a goal worth striving for, no matter how bad the job market might be. And there is considerable moral and philosophical validity to that approach. It may be what our children and grandchildren will have to settle for. But at the very least, we need to tell them that, however much education and competence will improve their daily lives, it cannot be counted on to raise their income, or even provide them with one in the first place.


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