Why Many Unemployed Workers Will Never Get Jobs

Despite steady but slow economic improvement, unemployed workers aren't finding jobs. With each passing day, more and more workers with out-of-date skills will find themselves on the outside looking in.

While dissension between political parties about fixing the economy is fierce and turf battles muddy up regional and local solutions, nearly everyone agrees that job training and re-training programs are critical.

That's true. I have no qualms about training employed and unemployed workers new skills. It's a must. It's a necessity. It's an indisputable truth.

But we have a huge problem on our hands that runs much deeper than the unemployment figures reveal. Despite billions of dollars invested in job skill training, it's not helping to reduce the unemployment rate, get more people back to work, and raising the standard of living. Why?

The problem with traditional job skill training in many cases is that you can walk a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Far too many workers -- employed and unemployed -- don't seem interested in finding water on their own. They want and expect someone else to find the water, make sure the journey isn't too arduous, and get someone to pay for it.

Thanks to years of economic prosperity, government entitlements, union contracts and most recently a generation of helicopter parents, many workers from aging Baby Boomers to the young adults known as Millennials don't have the motivational skills to achieve their own success, to keep themselves safe, to avoid a personal crisis, and to get themselves out of a jam.

When I refer to motivational skills, I mean basic life skills. The skills we used to learn as children that carried us through the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Children learned to entertain themselves. When we fell, we were told to get up, dust ourselves off, and try again. We learned there was a difference between winning and losing. Just playing the game was an opportunity, not a guarantee.

We now live in a world where self-help isn't about helping oneself improve our lot in life but finding a a scapegoat for our failures and a surrogate to do whatever you want done for you. We expect employers or government to pay for health insurance while we eat too much, under-exercise, and engage in extreme activities. We don't save enough but expect the government and our employers to stash enough money away for a long retirement. Kids aren't allowed to ride their bike to Johnny's, grab a stick and ball, use a corrugate box for bases, and play baseball. At the end of a day, some of us won and others lost.

Today parents drive their children to sports registration, pay a fee, purchase equipment, and organize the game. Our children -- our next generation of workers -- are carted around for practice and weekend tournaments to play soccer, baseball and you name it. For the past 30 years or more, our children weren't taught the skills we need as adults to live and work. They grew up believing every child is a winner, regardless of the effort they put into it. And the parents began to believe it too.

But the latest recession and consequent loss of jobs and high unemployment has burst the bubble that just showing up is good enough to acquire and retain a good paying job.

Many of the unemployed workers have simply lost the ability and motivation to make a better life for them and take responsibility for problems they create -- if they ever learned to do it in the first place. Picking yourself up by your bootstraps is a lost skill. When you fall, it's not your fault. It's expected that someone else come to your rescue, offer you the bootstrap, hoist you up, and nurse you back to health.

I recently mentioned to someone that "God helps those who help themselves." Their response was to tell me God never said that. That is true by the way -- it's not actually in the Bible. But they missed my point. For many generations we believed that. It was a philosophy our grandparents, our great-grandparents, and those before us lived by. People didn't look for handouts, sue someone when things didn't go right, and wallow in their own pity waiting to be rescued.

And that is why our joblessness won't get fixed with job skill training. That's why we have so many unemployed workers who can't find jobs despite millions of job vacancies.

Up until the last decade or so, it didn't take much to get a job. If you had a pulse and could fog a mirror, you had the qualifications for many low-paying, low-skill jobs. If you sought a better lifestyle, you acquired trade skills or a college degree. Once you had a job, you were pretty well set for life. At that point in your career, school was behind you and employees looked to the company for training, benefits, and even retirement. If you were unfortunate enough to be laid off, the company paid you a severance or you collected unemployment from the government. Companies as well as government and community services even provided another bootstrap -- outplacement services and job coaching to help you get back on your feet.

Employees stopped learning how to go out and find success for themselves. They were taught to look toward third parties to help get them a job and bail them out. For almost 50 years people learned how to get rescued, not escape on their free will and ability.

Unions ensured that once you got a job, you kept it. Pay for performance went out the window. Employees did not have to prove themselves anymore. If you showed up for work, almost regardless of skill, you were guaranteed a lifetime of work, a middle class lifestyle, and a relaxing retirement. The union, not the worker, negotiated wages and guarantees jobs.

Over the last few decades, we have stopped treating our workers as adults so they became ageless children. The worker became a permanent child with the union acting as a lifelong parent. The problem our society faces today is that we stopped teaching people how to create their own success and to nurture and maintain the careers they have. It's not a lack of job skills that is hurting our country, our society, and our citizens. It's the lack of motivational skills.

For many people, college was a given. Even students who barely studied could get into a college. If you had enough money or scholarships, you could spend years in school with minimal effort and still leave with a degree. And that was supposed to enough to guarantee a lifelong middle income lifestyle and career. Learning ended the day students graduated.

Starting your own business was also a lot simpler just a few decades ago. If you had a technical or physical skill and stamina, you had a lifelong career. A high school dropout could become the CEO of a company on blood, sweat, and tears alone. Bookkeeping was simple -- all needed was a pocket to place cash and a checkbook to pay bills. If you had more cash than bills at the end of the month you were a success.

But then the world got a little complicated. Hard work alone is no longer enough. Long hours and physical stamina worked in an industrial age when brawn was the most valuable asset. Now that brains are critical, it's not about working harder, but smarter. Employment laws, environmental regulations, compliance and safety... the "handyman" now needs to use his head plus his brawn to start and build a company.

As a new world evolves with increased competition, a persistent dose of uncertainty, and complexity running rampant, the easy road to success has collapsed. Many people are finding themselves overwhelmed and under-skilled to deal with the uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of today's business environment. Technical job skill training won't fix our broken employment system if all workers -- employed and unemployed -- don't learn some basic motivational and life skills.

Until individuals assume personal responsibility for achieving their own success, government and community outreach might be the best moral and civil approach to helping get unemployed and under-employed workers back on their feet. But it will do little to help these workers acquire the skills needed to survive and thrive in this new dynamic, ever-changing world in which we live.