Closing the skills gap

Rob Portman
By Rob Portman

The weakest economic recovery since the 1940s continues, and for the millions of Americans who are still looking for full-time work, their own personal recession drags on. We have almost become numb to the disappointing news: nearly 20 million Americans and 400,000 of our friends and neighbors in Ohio unemployed, and millions more giving up looking, resulting in the lowest percentage of Americans in the workforce in 34 years.

But there’s another number that is less well-known, a statistic that cries out for attention. Across this country, 3.9 million jobs remain open and unfilled—100,000 in Ohio alone. These are not just part-time or minimum wage positions. According to a recent study, Ohio is third behind only California and Texas in skilled factory job openings, full-time jobs with benefits that often turn into long-term careers. The Manufacturing Institute recently concluded that 74 percent of manufacturers are experiencing workforce shortages or skill deficiencies that keep them from expanding their operations.

With such high, chronic unemployment, how could this be?

For too many Americans, the only jobs that are available are those they don’t have the skills and qualifications to fill. The federal government spends plenty of money to address this skills gap, but it’s not getting the job done.

At last check, the federal government spends over $15 billion of our tax dollars annually to operate 47 different workforce development programs spread over nine different departments and agencies. Forty-four of them overlap with at least one other program, and only five have conducted an impact study of their efforts since 2004, leading the Government Accountability Office to conclude that “little is known about the effectiveness of most programs.”

I think we do know. Those millions of unfilled jobs are as incriminating an indictment of our retraining programs as any impact study could ever be.

It’s a story I hear every time I visit with workers, businesses, and educators across Ohio. People are frustrated, and for good reason. The way Washington has handled worker retraining is simply unfair. It’s unfair to employers who have open positions because they cannot find qualified candidates to fill them. It’s unfair to taxpayers who send their money to Washington believing that the government will be good stewards of those funds. And it is unfair to the millions of Americans who want to build a better life for their families and yet find that the federal resources allocated to help them aren’t getting the job done.

We can do better, and that’s why I have joined with Senator Michael Bennet to introduce the CAREER Act, a bipartisan bill designed to fix some of the problems that plague our federal jobs retraining programs.

The purpose of this legislation is four-fold. First, we need to reorganize our worker retraining programs to make them more efficient. We don’t need 47 different programs run by nine different agencies. We can combine and simplify those programs, making them easier to access for those who are eligible for training. My bill clears a path for doing that.

We also redirect resources to match skills with jobs. We steer federal retraining dollars to programs that equip workers with the credentials and skills they actually need to get jobs within the industries that are in their states and the regions. And we incentivize success. We give states the flexibility to use a portion of their retraining funds on programs that are accountable and performance-based. We should reward job training providers that produce measurable results in job placement and retention.

Finally, we need to make it less difficult and expensive for state and local workforce officials to determine whether or not their programs are having an impact. We give state workforce agencies access to the National Directory of New Hires—a database that is already up and running—so that they know when workers get a job in another state or region.

These reforms should not be controversial. They are commonsense. They are bipartisan. They will help unemployed Americans find the good-paying jobs they need, and they’ll do it in a way that makes better use of taxpayer dollars. That’s why this legislation has received enthusiastic support from across the political spectrum—from business groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and US Steel to non-profits like the National Skills Coalition, Year Up, America Forward, and Opportunity Nation.

At a time when the two parties in Washington have been butting heads over how to finally get our economy going again, the CAREER Act is a jobs bill that is a win for everyone, especially those Americans who are still looking for work. Let’s close the skills gap and get Americans working again.

Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio.