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America Needs a Jobs Plan Based on Private-Sector Realities


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The disappointing August unemployment report brought yet another round of bad news about the Obama economy. It revealed that the country added only 96,000 jobs last month -- not even enough to keep up with population growth -- and that 261,000 jobs have been lost since President Barack Obama took office. With 23 million Americans still struggling for work, it's clear there is a stunning shortage of jobs in the Obama economy.

At the same time, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce reports that millions of jobs remain vacant because of a persistent skills gap, meaning American workers don't have the necessary skills to fill them.

These vacant jobs represent a huge missed opportunity, in terms of addressing our nation's unemployment problem. Unfortunately, President Obama has tackled our nation's skills gap the same way he tackles all problems: with expensive government programs that fail to yield the results we need.

In 2009, the federal government poured $18 billion into 47 employment and job-training programs that spanned nine federal agencies. Of those retraining programs, 44 overlapped with at least one other program, and the little we know about their effectiveness suggests their impacts were minimal. For example, of the 3,586 individuals who completed one Department of Labor-funded "green" job-training program, only 466 found new jobs.

Clearly, current education and job-training programs aren't working to bridge the divide between the skills potential employees have and the skills employers want. And the way to fix the problem isn't to spend more taxpayer money on existing, failing programs.

Instead, we must rethink our approach to focus on results -- that is, on actually putting Americans back to work.

That begins by fixing our education system and ensuring that students graduate from school prepared to be competitive, both in the local and in the global work forces. This requires recruiting and retaining the best and brightest teachers and giving parents the freedom and information they need to choose the best school for their children. We must also expand our views about education beyond the traditional four-year college degree to better prepare students for jobs in all sectors of our economy -- whether they are in the skilled trades or in high-tech industries.

For those already in the work force, we must ensure that training and retraining programs equip participants with the skills they need for the jobs that are available in their own communities. My proposal brings states and private-sector companies together so that they can align programs with regional economic needs and opportunities. When paired with strict federal accountability measures, block-granting existing funds to states gives them more flexibility to develop the programs that work best locally, while still ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and efficiently.

Personal Re-employment Accounts are a particularly promising way to help forge these public-private partnerships. By allowing eligible participants to use the funds in their accounts to pursue a number of retraining options -- enrolling in a local community college or partnering with a company that offers on-the-job training and guaranteed employment, for example -- they are more likely to take ownership of the avenue they choose. And if they believe these programs will be effective in helping them get a new job, they will have a greater incentive to develop new skills quickly.

Despite the federal government's failure to help close the skills gap, local efforts are under way that use a think-outside-the-box approach to help people find work. For example, I recently learned about mikeroweWORKS, a small business in California dedicated to closing the skills gap and changing the way Americans view hard work and skilled labor. Founder Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" fame has partnered with corporations like Caterpillar, Ford and Kimberly-Clark and with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and the Future Farmers of America. He has raised more than $1 million for trade scholarships for students and even veterans returning from war, and he has started to help shift the conversation about skilled trades. Even better, states like Alabama and Georgia have teed off of Rowe's good work to launch their own statewide technical recruitment campaigns.

mikeroweWORKS is a terrific example of how states can partner with the private sector to develop job-training programs that actually meet the demand in the employment market -- and, ultimately, get Americans working again.

In the last four years, our country has relied on government to create jobs and stimulate economic growth. It simply hasn't worked. The true engine of growth in our nation is not government; it's the ingenuity of the American people. And if we work together to leverage that which made the United States prosperous, then we can restore our country's economic strength and deliver the results Americans expect and deserve: jobs.

Mitt Romney

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