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Finneran: Bad Moon Rising

Friday, January 19, 2018


America is in trouble.

Too few citizens pay attention.

Too many citizens are adrift.

It’s quite easy to overlook the problem. Given the racing pulse of the stock market and the relatively low unemployment rate of the state and the nation, it’s understandable that all seems well. The beautiful calm blue surface of our economic waters hides some dangerous currents.

Jobs are now harder than ever to fill. Good jobs. High paying jobs. Jobs that would comfortably support a middle-class family..........

The difficulty in filling these jobs does not spring from our tight labor market. That tight market might compound the challenge, but the challenge has been there for many years. And, it’s getting worse........

I call it the employer’s lament. A job posting goes up, perhaps in the help wanted section of the local newspaper, perhaps on some easily-accessed websites. That posting would certainly appear on the company’s bulletin boards. News of the posting and the opportunity would spread informally through the company’s network of employees that, “hey, there’s a nice opening” down the street at Joe’s ABC Corp.

The job carries some degree of complexity, but it’s not rocket science. The ability to read and understand a technical manual or two might be necessary. There might be some technical skill involved. And of course a prospective employee probably has to pass a drug test, particularly if there is machinery involved in the employee’s responsibilities.

Jobs such as this go unfilled for month after month after month, in every region of the country. The drug test filters out some applicants. No problem there. I understand and applaud the need to meet safety standards and quality assurance goals.

The bigger problem goes back to the required skill set. Too many Americans cannot read a technical manual. Too many lack the most basic of technical skills. Too many fail to grasp simple mathematical concepts.

The job might require the ability to read and understand blueprints. Or it might require the ability to operate sophisticated welding machinery. American industry has certainly grown more complex than the proverbial pliers and spark plug days of old. While industry has moved forward, our schools have not.

President Obama claims to have spawned an economic recovery from the depths of the housing collapse. President Trump lays claim to a zooming stock market and economic confidence. The recent tax bill will likely add oxygen to that confidence. But don’t be fooled.

Neither President’s policies have addressed the employer community’s inability to find qualified skilled employees to fill thousands of jobs.

You can imagine the employers’ impatience. They see a prospective market and an opportunity to grow. They sense the possibility of profit. They are eager to find good employees with 21st century skills. And they wait and wait and wait...............their patience turns to fatigue and frustration.

Perhaps we should eliminate the social and cultural frown associated with technical training. Not everyone has to go to college. Not everyone has to take an obscure art course or a trendy “studies” degree. We desperately need more numerate and literate technical workers. So-called trade skills are in frighteningly short supply.

Perhaps our schools will take note. Perhaps technical educators will be deemed as important as Harvard Law School professors. I don’t know about you but when the lights are out or the plumbing goes I don’t call the guy who studied poetry. I call the guy who passed the plumbing boards.

The nation has survived dot.com bubbles, housing bubbles, and stock market bubbles. But survival is not enough. We need sustainable skills and sustainable growth. The simple fact that American employers cannot find qualified employees is a disgrace. It is also a looming economic catastrophe. There’s a bad moon rising over the nation.    

Tom Finneran is the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, served as the head the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and was a longstanding radio voice in Boston radio


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