- - Sunday, March 29, 2015

The great conundrum of the U.S. economy today is that we have record numbers of working-age Americans out of the labor force at the same time we have businesses desperately trying to find workers. For example, the American Transportation Research Institute estimates there are about 35,000 trucker jobs that could be filled tomorrow if workers would take these jobs — a shortage that could rise to 240,000 by 2022.

For skilled and reliable mechanics, welders, engineers, electricians, plumbers, computer technicians and nurses, jobs are plentiful. If you’re good at a trade and a reliable worker, you can often find a job in 48 hours. Says Bob Funk, president of Express Services, which matches almost a half-million temporary workers with employers each year, “If you have a useful skill, we can find you a job. But too many are graduating from high school and college without any skills at all.”

The lesson, to play off the famous Waylon Jennings song: Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be philosophy majors.

Three years ago, the chronic disease of the economy was a shortage of jobs. This shortage persists in some sectors. But the bigger problem is a shortage of trained employees and low-skilled employees willing to work. Patrick Doyle, the president of Domino’s Pizza, says the franchises around the country are having a hard time filling delivery and clerical positions. “It’s a very tight labor market out there now.”

This shortage has an upside for workers because it allows them to bid up wages. When Wal-Mart announced last month that wages for many starter workers would rise to $9 an hour — well above the federal legal minimum — they weren’t being humanitarians. They were responding to a tightening labor market.

The idea that blue-collar jobs aren’t a pathway to the middle class and higher is antiquated and wrong. After several years of honing their skills, welders, mechanics, carpenters and technicians can easily earn upward of $75,000 a year. It’s true these aren’t cushy jobs, but they do pay a good salary.

So why aren’t workers filling these available jobs — or getting the skills necessary to fill them? I would posit five impediments to putting more Americans back to work:

First, welfare is replacing work. Welfare consists of dozens of different and overlapping federal and state income support programs. A recent Census Bureau study found more than 100 million Americans collecting a government check or benefit each month. The spike in families on food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, disability, public housing and early Social Security remains very high even five years into this recovery. This should come as no surprise given the combination of the scaled-back welfare work requirements and the steep phaseout of benefits as a recipient begins earning income.

Economist Peter Ferrara argues in his new book “Power to the People, that if “we simply required work for all able-bodied welfare recipients, the number on public assistance would fall dramatically. This is what happened after the work-for-welfare requirements in 1996.”

Second, our public school system often fails to teach basic skills. Whatever happened to shop classes? We have schools that now concentrate more on ethnic studies and tolerance training than teaching kids how to use a lathe or a graphic design tool. Charter schools can help remedy this. Universities are even more negligent. Kids are graduating commonly from four-year colleges with $100,000 of debt and no little vocational training. A liberal arts education is valuable, but it should come paired with some practical skills.

Third, negative attitudes toward blue-collar work. I’ve talked to parents who say they are disappointed if their kids want to become a craftsman — instead of going to college. This attitude discourages kids from learning how to make things. Meanwhile, we have too many people who want to go into the talking professions: lawyers, media, clergy, professors and so on. Those who can’t do, become attorneys and sociology professors.

Fourth, a cultural bias against young adults working. The labor-force participation rate is falling fastest among workers under 30 (see chart). Any time a state tries to change laws to make it easier for teenagers to earn money, the left throws a tantrum about repealing child labor laws. The move to raise minimum wages in states and at the federal level could hardly be more destructive to young people. My own research finds that the higher the minimum wage in a state, the lower the labor-force participation rate among teenagers.

Anecdotally, I’ve always been struck by how many successful people I have met who grew up on farms and started working — milking cows, building fences, cleaning out the barn — at the age of 10 or 11. They learn a work ethic at a young age and this pays big dividends in the future. Many studies document this to be true.

Fifth, higher education has become an excuse to delay entry into the workforce. I always cringe when I talk to 22-year-olds who will graduate from college and tell me their next step is to go to graduate school. Maybe by the time they are 26 or 27 they will start working. Here’s an idea: Colleges could encourage kids to have one or two years of work experience before they enroll. Schools like College of the Ozarks require kids to work 15 hours a week to pay their tuition.

Here’s an even better idea: Abolish federal student loans for all but disabled students and replace the free government dollars with privately sponsored college work programs. It’s hardly a violation of human rights to require 21-year-olds to work to fund their own education — and they will probably get more out of their classes if they work. This would drive down tuition costs because students would demand more financial accountability and less waste.

These may seem like old-fashioned ideas. But the decline in work among the young bodes ill for the future. Many European nations have removed the young from the workforce and the repercussion appears to be lower lifetime earnings. A renewed focus on working would also help erode the entitlement mentality ingrained in so many millennials. Instead of more benefits and handouts, this generation needs to get a job.

Stephen Moore is an economist at the Heritage Foundation and a Fox News contributor.

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