The federal job training maze

Speaking at the NATO summit in Chicago on Monday, President Obama expressed his belief that the President’s job is to “figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot,” and “think about those workers who get laid off, and how we’re paying for their retraining.”

As it happens, last year the Government Accountability Office completed a major study of federal job training programs, which Obama often touts as one of his great contributions to the cause of job creation, during his chronic but short-lived bouts of claiming that job creation is his top priority. 

The study was commissioned by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) of “Wastebook” fame, who told Fox News, “The vast majority of money we spend in job training doesn’t go to job training.  It goes to employ people in those job training federal programs.”

The report studied data from fiscal year 2009, but the system it describes remains largely the same: an “overlapping and duplicative maze of 47 federal jobs programs run by nine agencies,” as the Fox News report describes it, adding that “some were rife with mismanagement, waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption.”  Taxpayers currently spend $18 billion on these programs every year.  That’s more than four times as much as Obama’s silly “Buffett Rule” tax would have brought in.

Among other marvels discovered by the GAO were people trained for jobs that didn’t exist, and trained for jobs they already held.  Of course, in keeping with the culture exposed by the outrageous GSA scandal, there were reports of job training administrators spending “federal funds on extravagant meals and bonuses for themselves.”

President Obama, naturally, wants to pour more taxpayer money into this system, rather than giving “tax breaks to every millionaire and billionaire in the country.”  His Republican rival, Mitt Romney, would rather block-grant the money back to state governments, which could run their own job training programs.

Romney’s approach would help to clean up the redundancy issues, and increase accountability by raising these programs from the murky depths of Washington to the relatively clear and shallow waters of state capitals.  However, the GAO report made it clear that measuring the effectiveness of any of job training program is extremely difficult… because very few of them keep track of their own performance. 

“Little is known about the effectiveness of employment and training programs,” the report explains, “because, since 2004, only five reported conducting an impact study, and about half of all the remaining programs have not had a performance review of any kind.”

Senator Coburn, on his web site, cites another study that found “of the approximately 26 million U.S. citizens served by federal jobs training programs in 2009, a scant 4 percent actually receive the type of classroom-based skills instruction that leads to lifelong income gains.”  The rest get little more than “short-term job referral services designed to place people in jobs based on knowledge or experience they already have.”  Much of this “retraining” is really another government-funded program to cover the deficiencies of government-funded public education, whose results have long been unsatisfactory to private industry.

Federal job programs are another example of “voodoo government,” in which the symbolic magic of burning huge piles of money and chanting magic slogans replaces reason and accountability.  Obama’s formulation, repeated in virtually every job-related speech he delivers, is that a declaration of concern, followed by the expenditure of tax money, is all that should be required to “fix” unemployment.  Whoever proposes spending the most money on “jobs programs” must care the most about jobs!

We should be far beyond the point of falling for such shallow arguments.  How can we objectively determine that any given employee has secured a job that he wouldn’t have landed without federal assistance?  Why should we believe the federal government can manage such programs better than state governments could?  And what’s the point of spending billions to train people for jobs that don’t exist?