Tuesday, December 6, 2011
As one of Maine's largest employers, Bath Iron Works is often in the news around here. New federal contracts provide a steady supply both of news and of jobs and will so for years to come, thanks to the strong Maine work ethic and the political and DoD connections of General Dynamics, BIW's owner. Shipbuilding on the Kennebec is nothing new, spanning some 250 years. Making warships started over 100 years ago with various precursors of BIW, and WWII completed the transition to complete dependence on Washington. These government programs, by the way, are perfectly acceptable to most politicians and most people; building engines of mass destruction is necessary to maintain the peace on our shores, and the jobs are pretty welcome too. War will always be lucrative, and self-justifying.
Other parts of the economy aren't so lucky, or so protected, and therefore need new justification for their increasingly marginal activities. The main rationale for approving casinos these days is that they will create jobs. Some Republicans are against any new taxes on the rich, because the wealthy create jobs. Democrats propose extending the payroll tax cuts; not to do so would increase joblessness. Most states, even those like Maine that are controlled by various blends of Tea Bags, continue to take federal money because to reject it would increase their unemployment. (Maine finds itself in the illogical position, for example, of participating in lawsuits against Obamacare, yet accepting federal grants to set up healthcare exchanges.) Pipelines from Canada, fracking, new child labor laws, relaxation of clean-air and wetlands standards - all justified by the terrible jobless rate. Earnest estimates of job numbers are now part of standard press releases, to obscure the ideology that's driving them.
What's hardly ever discussed are job training and re-training programs. Businesses will train people only for new contracts won, not re-train people if old contracts are lost. Old industries collapse suddenly, or die slowly, both at immense human cost. The individual is apparently responsible for adaptation even though the new world is far beyond his control. In Maine skilled jobs are going unfilled and the administration mouths some token works about needing to revise educational curricula, but in reality blames teachers and their unions for somehow failing the public.
In a job market so rapidly changing, shouldn't all levels of government, and perhaps even business, make it a priority to help the workforce adapt? How about taking just a bit of the Pentagon's largesse and turn it into something humane?