One job-training program conservatives should embrace

Ike Brannon President, Capital Policy Analytics
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At the risk of sounding like I’m writing a letter to Penthouse Forum, I’d like to start this missive by stating that I never thought I’d find myself using these pages to defend a liberal member of the Obama administration, but that is what I intend to do.

Jason Furman is the ostensible proponent (as well as the subject of a petition campaign attacking him) for what I think is a thoughtful, innovative proposal that would encourage corporations to hire unpaid, currently unemployed young professionals as interns to help them get a toehold in the workaday world.

I’ve got no idea whether this is a liberal, conservative or reactionary policy, but I do know it makes a lot of sense. It also happens to be a good example of the administration taking a cue from the states and borrowing something that is working there — in this case, the model is a Georgia program designed by Georgia’s Democratic labor commissioner, Mitchell Thurmond, called Georgia Work$.

The program recognizes that unemployment not only costs workers their lost wages but robs them of valuable experience they need to move up the ladder. Spending two or more years without a job can be devastating to a career, and anything that we can do to help alleviate this is a step in the right direction. By allowing people who are receiving unemployment to work for free for a limited period of time without losing their benefits, the program encourages employers to look for people worth their while to train while at the same time encouraging potential employees to get back into the labor force.

There is some evidence Georgia Work$ has been a success: The Georgia Department of Labor reports that roughly 60 percent of all participants landed a job after participating in the program, with about 30 percent of those working for the companies that trained them.

There was a great article a few years back about the work lives of people in the witness protection program. Unbeknownst to most Americans, once people in the witness protection program are given new identities and are resettled, they are expected to get jobs and support themselves. But despite the best efforts of the FBI, it used to be difficult for people in the program to present full resumes to potential employers. Finally, an FBI agent working with someone in the program suggested that, after a thorough job search, he go back to what he thought would be the best fit for him and offer to work for free for a period of time, in order to learn the ropes and prove he would be a valuable employee. Lo and behold, more often than not the company came through with a job offer after a month or two. I wrote a piece at the time (I’d link to it but it predates the Internet) suggesting states look at such a program more broadly, so I’d like to think I’m ahead of the curve on this matter.

I’m not sure which part of the proposal the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) is objecting to — I mean, it’s patently clear that the unions put them up to this, but normally there is at least some ostensible critique. Instead, all the PCCC says is that Furman’s advice is “not credible” and that “the president should propose massive government investments.”

My worry is that the administration will acquiesce to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and conduct an “impact review” of the program before implementing it, putting it in the scrap pile with a host of other stimulus programs hobbled or killed by union demands.

That would be too bad, because this is an eminently sensible idea that Congress should embrace and help the president get through as soon as possible.

And although being defended by a conservative probably makes life a lot worse for him, Jason Furman is the type of economist we want in the White House. While we disagree on many things (I thought his objection to progressive indexation of Social Security benefits was a hack job), he’s also been unafraid to anger people in his party by advocating policies that gore one of its myriad constituent groups, whether it be defending Wal-Mart as a beneficial force for low-income workers or praising a proposal from the Bush tax reform commission that would drastically cut back the mortgage interest deduction. And the time he spent running the Hamilton Project at Brookings set a standard for how to be an effective advocate for an economic policy that people on both sides of the aisle can support.

I’m not sure if a petition supporting Furman would do him any good, but the least that Republicans can do is recognize a good idea and embrace it, even if it comes from the opposition.

Ike Brannon is director of Economic Policy at the American Action Forum.

Tags : economics
Ike Brannon