Middle Class Jobs: All Things Old Are New Again

Michael Bernick
Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and former Director of the California Employment Development Department

 All things old are new again in summer 2015 when it comes to strategies for expanding middle class jobs in California and nationwide. The policy concerns being debated today (income inequality, technology eliminating jobs, expanding middle class jobs) have all been here before, as have been the strategies put forward (apprenticeships, sector-based training, community college collaboration).

Let’s get in our DeLorean and travel back to Governor Jerry Brown’s jobs efforts in early 1982.

On January 22, 1982, Governor Jerry Brown declared that “countless jobs are being radically changed through the new information technologies” (sound familiar). He added that “millions of working people will be left standing in unemployment lines unless we take prompt action now” (sound familiar). He went on to call for continued funding of the California Worksite Education and Training Act (CWETA), which he had established as a pilot program in 1979, focused on retraining of laid-off workers.

Regarding training approaches, Governor Brown praised the apprenticeship , as an earn and learn model. He also emphasized the need to craft training around the changing skills needs of each employment sector, and the collaboration with the community college system.       Fast forward to today, where the employment initiatives being put forward on the national and state levels include similarly the apprenticeship, the sector-based training, the community college as workforce partner.

The experiences in California during the 1980s and 1990s with these training approaches was positive enough. The apprenticeship, in particular, was effective, and continues to be. Diane Ravnik, the head of the Division of Apprenticeship Standards for the State, has been involved with apprenticeship programs for decades. She notes that the main challenge has been and continues to be expanding the model to new fields, such as Information Technology.

Yet, the experiences also show the limits of training approaches in influencing middle class jobs, against the broader economic forces of technology, globalization and international immigration. California journalist and author Mickey Kaus (below) has been making this point for some time, including in several posts over the past week (www.kausfiles.com).

Mickey Kaus

Mickey Kaus

One of Mickey’s best-known book is The End of Equality, published in 1992, and focused on the increasing concerns through the 1980s and early 1990s about income inequality. The book has proved to be prescient about the limited impacts of strategies being put forward at that time to reduce inequality—including strategies of vocational training, “flexible production”, profit sharing, and redistributive taxation.

The book is worth reading (or re-reading)in summer 2015, not only as income inequality remains on the political agenda, but also as a number of these same strategies continue to pop up. Some of the book’s analysis is dated, especially the Japanese economy as a model for sustainable growth and an expanded middle class. Most of the analysis remains fresh, and as challenging to conventional wisdom today as it was in 1992.

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