President-elect Donald Trump proclaimed at the start of his campaign, “I’ll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places.” But his mostly protectionist prescriptions of tariffs or declaring China a currency manipulator would probably kill jobs and tank the economy.
Here’s an idea for the incoming administration. To “bring back” jobs in 2017, go back in time to 1944. That’s when Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill. In addition to mortgages and loans, the GI Bill provided tuition for education. By 1947, half of those admitted to college were veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and nearly eight million participated over 12 years. It completely revamped the U.S. workforce and provided skilled labor for the go-go economy in the 1950s and ’60s.
Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 145 million nonfarm jobs in the U.S. Some 15 million Americans who want to work aren’t able to find any. Yet there are currently 5.5 million job openings. This suggests a huge mismatch between jobs and skills.
How about a modern version of the GI Bill, but for everyone. I propose the Re-Hi Bill of 2017. If you’re unemployed, you get a voucher or tax credit for education. No, I’m not going all Bernie Sanders on you, with “free” public college adding billions to the national debt. Instead, there’s a twist: These programs would be online only, drastically lowering costs.
Udemy, which bills itself as the world’s largest destination for online courses, has thousands of courses in computer skills and art and teacher training for $200. The online-education firm Ivytech teaches people how to use digital technology that controls machine tools. HHAOnline has $89.99 online courses for home health care. Coursera, another big player in online education, teaches all aspects of robotics.
No application essays. No Education Department messing with course selection. No teachers union. No degrees. Instead, only a computer or tablet—and successful completion produces a certificate. The right combination of certificates puts you on a list to be hired for all sorts of jobs: computer-support specialist, outside electrician, freight-stock worker, sonographer, radiation therapist, actuary. The list goes on.
The Trump administration has promised to spend billions on infrastructure, but that doesn’t provide new skills, and it takes forever to find the shovels. Online education for retraining skills can start tomorrow morning, and for relatively cheap. Even 15 million workers spending $500 a year on a few courses comes to less than $8 billion. Maybe the Clinton Foundation could help fund it. Mr. Trump has said, “I will be the greatest jobs president that God has ever created.” Here’s his chance.