Last week I offered a point-by-point review of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam’s plan to revitalize rural Virginia. In rough summary, I concluded that the plan wouldn’t accomplish much, but on the other hand, it wouldn’t cost much either. The Northam proposals had considerably more merit than a lot of ideas — such as a $15-per-hour minimum wage — that he could have put forth.
Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed section, however, Bart Hinkle took issue with core assumptions of the Northam plan.
First, Hinkle noted that investing in job creation in Southwest Virginia is not necessarily the optimal solution for reducing unemployment. Perhaps people could better improve their circumstances by moving to urban areas that offered greater economic opportunity.
Of course, some people in Southwest Virginia might want to improve their economic circumstances and still stay put. But is it the state’s job to ensure that they can? And if the answer is yes, then what does that imply about, say, struggling economic sectors? Should the state help people stay in fading industries as well as fading regions? If not, why not?
Hinkle also questions the value of providing workers skill-specific training. He cites a Journal of Human Resources study that suggests technological and other changes often leave skill-trained workers behind, and that employers, rather than retrain them, often let them go and bring in new talent. The real need, the study suggests, is “for more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs.”
On a more philosophical plane, Hinkle wonders why the job of providing specific workforce training has devolved to the state in the first place.
If companies need workers who are trained to perform specific tasks, then why don’t those companies do the training themselves? Why should the state — i.e. the taxpayers — shoulder the burden of doing it for them?
Labor, he suggests, is a production input just like raw materials. If Acme Semiconductors wanted to build a plant in Virginia, and it asked the state to ensure a steady supply of silicon, the state probably would tell Acme to pound sand. But if Acme says it wants workers trained to work in a clean room, Virginians feel compelled to help out.
Bacon’s bottom line: These are all good questions.
I am reminded of a Daily Signal article published last week about a federal-state-private job-training program set up in Kentucky coal country, practically next door to Virginia’s coal-mining counties, to teach people in 20 weeks of classroom training how to code. Under the banner of turning “coal country” into “code country,” the program paid interns $400 a week to learn how to write software code, and Interapt promised high-paying jobs to those who completed the course. But after a year and $20 million, the program has fallen far short of expectations. Only 17 people have found jobs in the tech sector.
The Kentucky program may or may not be typical of government-backed workforce training programs generally. Some programs deliver modestly positive results; others are scandalously, almost fraudulently bad. But even if they do help people find jobs, how long will skill sets from a 20-week training program stay relevant? How many graduates will have jobs requiring those skills three, four, or five years from now? Hinkle raises an important point: If companies require workers to possess certain skills, why don’t they train their own? Why has this obligation been fobbed off to government?
While acknowledging the value of Hinkle’s questions — I do lean libertarian, after all — I frame the issue differently. Rural Virginians do need help. If they can find local jobs through targeted training programs, great. If not, mastering new skills will make it easier, by making people more employable, for them to move to jobs in growing metropolitan areas, just as Hinkle thinks they should do.
If state government is going to subsidize anything under the banner of economic development, it should be education and training. Given that I favor continued state support for higher education mainly benefiting the upper middle-class, as noted here, how could I not endorse training expenditures to benefit those lower on the socio-economic ladder?
However, I am acutely cognizant of the dangers in turning job training over to untested government programs or public-private partnerships. Any program must be subjected to rigorous review to ensure that the benefits are commensurate with the costs. Resources are too scarce. We cannot afford to waste them.
Update: The obsession with rural economics is decades old. A couple of months ago, Garland Pollard penned a profile of Dr. Wilson Gee, a professor of Rural Economics and Rural Sociology at the University of Virginia beginning in 1923. His view, as Pollard puts it: “The United States is a rich country, even if we have nothing else but our land. Our farms and agriculture, worked properly and carefully, can provide riches for us, beyond measure, in health and well-being, as well as a decent, fair living. Compared to Europe, Africa and Asia, there is an abundance here, but we have have to work hard and make good use of it.”There are currently no comments highlighted.