Training Wreck


The most dangerous of Bill Clinton's economic proposals is also the most obscure—and the most seemingly sensible.

Clinton wants to require all employers to spend at least 1.5 percent of payroll on formal worker training. Those who spent less would have to pay a special tax into a government training fund. Most of the 1.5 percent would have to go for lower-level employees.

The idea has been around since 1990 and will undoubtedly survive even if Clinton's candidacy doesn't. In a world of advancing technology and intense competition, the argument goes, neither workers nor businesses can succeed by relying on the rote skills of old-fashioned assembly lines. Well-run manufacturing and service businesses are pushing authority and responsibility as close to the production line, the sales floor, and the customer-service desk as possible. More and more, workers must think for themselves, solve problems, and relate their jobs to the big picture.

Making that switch means redesigning jobs and upgrading skills, especially in manufacturing jobs. The Collins & Aikman carpet plant in Dalton, Georgia, for instance, discovered that many employees couldn't use new machinery because they couldn't read. The mill has hired a local teacher to give on-site classes in reading and math. As a result, productivity is up and error rates are down.

So training is a good idea. And successful foreign companies, notably in Japan and Germany, seem to do more formal teaching than most American businesses.

But Clinton's plan suffers from the central fallacy of Progressivism (or, in its "New Democrat" guise, neoliberalism): the drive to turn good advice into coercion and, in the process, to lose any connection with the subtleties of real-world problems.

As proposed in Clinton's economic blueprint, "Putting People First," the training plan lacks critical details. Would every employer be covered? (Family-owned dry cleaners? Nonprofit soup kitchens?) What kind of training would count? What expenses could go toward the 1.5 percent? (Just out-of-pocket fees? Wages paid while employees attend classes?) The paperwork would be enormous. Ignoring the details suggests a certain detachment from the very world of work the plan seeks to improve.

But some things are clear. The give and take of on-the-job training—the way, for example, writers work with editors—wouldn't count under the Clinton plan. And training quality wouldn't matter. One thing I've learned from sending editors and writers to magazine workshops is that at least two-thirds of the seminars are lousy, either badly done or, more commonly, inappropriate to either the individual or the publication.

To figure out the likely details of a training mandate, you have to go to the source—a highly publicized 1990 report from the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. The commission's head was Ira Magaziner, a business consultant and key Clinton adviser. Hillary Clinton sat on the board of the sponsoring National Center on Education and the Economy.

That report makes clear just what's behind the training plan: a deeply held belief that every employee in America should be centrally managed by Ira Magaziner and his friends.

Nowhere does the commission hint that different businesses might have different needs or differently trained workforces. Nowhere does it suggest that its members might know less about the nuances of thousands of industries and millions of firms than the people who make their living in those industries and those firms. Nowhere does it acknowledge the problems of top-down, one-size-fits-all prescriptions.

Indeed, the commission declares that its "proposal may appear burdensome to small companies that do not compete internationally or perceive no need for training. But the most equitable initiative is one that treats all companies and institutions uniformly." (Italics added.)

The report also removes any doubt that the "training" at issue will be as formal, as uniform, and as bureaucratic as possible. It suggests more than a little self-interest on the part of the training industry.

"We recommend that only accredited courses that form part of a formal certification program or a college degree program be counted toward the employer's minimum training obligation," declares the commission. There will be no English as a second language classes, no WordPerfect instruction, no sales seminars unless somebody official has worked them into a genuine government credentialing process.

This is scary. And, despite the antitax rhetoric that will be used to attack it, it is not about money. A new 1.5-percent payroll tax would be a minor intrusion compared to having Washington dictate just how to manage your own workplace.

A lot is at stake, starting with the very existence of small businesses. No, a single training mandate won't wipe them out. But the attitude behind it will.

In Germany and Sweden, countries greatly admired by the commission, small businesses as Americans know them don't exist. At such monoliths as Hoechst and Electrolux, the costs of formal training can be spread across thousands of employees.

By contrast, letting people work for or own small organizations means putting up with ad-hoc training—learning new software by reading the manual, for instance, rather than taking a class led by the data processing manager. Such improvisation makes people like Magaziner uncomfortable.

But it makes a lot of other Americans happy. Small business is not just a lobby. It's a lifestyle. Many, many people want to work in more-intimate organizations, organizations that can't afford human-resources departments and training managers but that can afford to treat people as individuals.

The real problem with a training mandate, then, isn't that it's expensive or even that it's ham-handed. It's that it doesn't appreciate what work means to people.

The workplace is more than a tool of national economic competition, a weapon to be manipulated by a Clinton administration's Economic Security Council. It is the place millions of people spend most of their waking lives. And it is the place entrepreneurs and managers express their concept of the good life, their idea of how people ought to get along. It is profoundly personal.

Many consultants and professors, journalists and executives, think they can tell you how to be a better manager. Many of them are right. So are many of the psychologists, teachers, and social workers who believe they know how you can be a better parent, a better spouse, a better friend.

But both happiness and prosperity, better relationships and better management, depend on knowing the difference between good advice and good public policy. And it is a difference, unfortunately, that Bill Clinton still seems to miss.