Skilled work: the missing link

Politicians and even economists refer to jobs as if they were a fungible commodity. “America needs jobs.” “We’re bringing jobs back to America.”

But jobs are not fungible. Instead, an ever-increasing share of employment requires specialized skills. And to an ever-increasing degree, only these specialized skills can sustain a middle class.

This misapprehension about the nature of employment helps fuel the mistaken idea that you can create prosperity through the creation of undifferentiated low-skill “jobs” — which, in turn, contributes to the misapprehension that if you just cut interest rates, prosperity will follow. Which leads to the policy error alluded to in a prior post.

Skill development is the missing link in American employment policy. It’s missing from colleges and universities. It’s missing from public schools. It’s missing even from many technical and trade schools. It’s not prioritized by economists or politicians.

This is mystifying, because obviously, in the long run, prosperity derives from productivity.

In the old days, the industrial era, productivity was fueled mainly by deploying natural resources: if you add more electricity and motors to a production line, unskilled assembly workers go faster, with no change in skills.

It’s different now. Everything has already been more or less optimized for automation through energy and motion.  To make that production line go still faster, you can’t just add more energy.  Instead, you may need to understand statistical analysis, or programming. Further productivity gains require skills.

US labor policy will continue to flounder until this becomes a priority.

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