The last few weeks, I’ve been working with my colleagues in the Senate to secure an extension of long-term unemployment benefits that is paid for and will help Ohioans who are still struggling in this economy. I wish we didn’t need an extension at all, but even five years after the recession officially ended, too many of our friends and neighbors are still out of a job. In fact, the number of those who have been searching for work for at least six months remains at historically high levels, far above even what we’ve seen at the height of previous recessions.
An unemployment extension is not a moment for celebration; it’s a moment for reflection on what hasn’t worked in the past to spur job creation for the American people and what we can do better in the future.
Washington should be enacting pro-growth policy proposals like regulatory relief, tax reform, new agendas to expand exports, and the aggressive development of domestic energy, the Keystone Pipeline, and energy efficiency. But Washington should also fix our unemployment system itself. Right now, it is failing those it was designed to help. Research shows that even during good economic times, only about 15 percent of the long-term unemployed find a job in any given month. They also tend to have trouble staying employed; only 11 percent are able to find and keep a job for a full year.
To begin to address this failed system, I fought to include these reforms that we’ve needed for a very long time in the final agreement on an unemployment extension. We want to ensure that the unemployed are getting more than just a check; we want them to receive the training they need to get a job and keep it. Our reforms require officials to connect the unemployed with training programs that will help them attain critical skills and credentials that are regionally relevant and nationally portable.
These steps, however, are only the beginning. We also need to provide fundamental and comprehensive reform of the 47 different, often overlapping, federal workforce development programs — costing over $15 billion in taxpayer dollars a year — that aren’t accomplishing their mission of connecting the unemployed with jobs.
In an effort to address the deficiencies in these programs and ensure that taxpayer dollars are not being wasted on retraining that doesn’t work, Senator Michael Bennet and I introduced the bipartisan CAREER Act. Our legislation not only makes job-retraining programs more effective and efficient, but also incentivizes success. We give states the flexibility to use a portion of their retraining funds on programs that are accountable and performance-based, rewarding job-training providers that produce measurable results in job placement and retention.
We desperately need that kind of reform right now to begin to close what is called the skills gap. At the same time we are experiencing these high levels of long-term unemployment, there are 3.9 million available jobs around the country — 100,000 unfilled jobs in Ohio alone. These are not just part-time or minimum wage positions. According to a recent study, Ohio is third behind only California and Texas in skilled factory job openings — full-time jobs with benefits that often turn into long-term careers. The Manufacturing Institute recently concluded that 74 percent of manufacturers are experiencing workforce shortages or skill deficiencies that keep them from expanding their operations.
And yet according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the number of training participants who are earning in-demand skills and credentials through the federal government’s primary job training programs has dropped by as much as 15 percent in the past five years.
The reforms included in the unemployment extension and in the CAREER Act will help turn that decline around and mobilize some of the extraordinary resources available in Ohio that provide quality training. Last week, I had the opportunity to visit retraining programs at Stark State College in Stark County and the Robotics and Advanced Manufacturing Technology Education Collaborative (RAMTEC) and Tri-Rivers Career Center in Marion County. These facilities are working directly with industry to provide cutting-edge skills and credentials that are relevant to jobs available in Ohio and necessary to compete in a global economy.
We don’t have to accept the kind of chronic long-term unemployment we have seen over the last few years. We can do better. We know that Ohio workers aren’t looking for a handout; they are looking for a job. By adding skills training that works, we can help get them find one.
Rob Portman is a United States Senator.