The retraining myth

Following up on some of the comments to my recent post about Wal-Mart:

Even in the high-tech mecca of Austin, Texas, retraining is not offering a serious alternative to those seeking to escape low-wage, dead-end jobs. Zeynep Tufekci, a University of Texas professor, writes:

If there were ever a job training program to match the description of the president’s “Jobs for the 21st Century” initiative, it would be the one I have been studying in this high-tech metropolis for the past three years. The program is well-run, adequately funded, staffed by enthusiastic people and attended by resolute, hard-working individuals. It is spearheaded by local businesses, the city and institutions of higher education. People who may have never touched a computer learn how to do word and data processing, acquire an e-mail address, and search and apply for jobs online.

And most of them still cannot find decent jobs, if they can find jobs at all.

Part of the problem is that the technological advances that boost productivity mean “more can be done with less, which often means fewer jobs, less skilled work and, consequently, less pay.”

What job growth there’s been in the past two years has occurred largely in low-wage industries. And it appears that even if huge numbers of Americans improve their educational levels and skills, it will simply mean more people competing for essentially the same percentage of high-skill jobs in 2010 as we have now; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30 percent of jobs will require post-secondary education compared to 70 percent requiring on-the-job training.

The problem, then, isn’t that low-wage workers are too lazy to improve their skills. It’s that even when they do, the opportunities for better-paying work may not be there. We need some other ideas.