This piece in today's WaPo on the increasingly difficult challenges facing America's middle class workers argues quite forcefully (though only by implication, of course) that Bill Clinton was right; if trade is to be our friend in this new century -- and it can be -- the US government has simply got to be involved in the business of helping Americans help themselves, particularly in terms of education, training, and health care.
Teresa Geerling is living the future of life in the middle of the American workforce.
After years cleaning the insides of airplanes and polishing their outsides, Geerling was laid off from American Airlines last year. The job was physically taxing for Geerling, 50, but the nearly $32,000 annual pay and health-care coverage helped provide a typical middle-class life in this small midwestern community.
Now, she works the overnight shift at a local hospital as a nurse's aide while completing course work to be certified as a medical assistant. That would seem to be a smart move, because unlike airlines, which are contracting, health care is one of the industries that many economists believe could generate millions more jobs in the decades to come.
Yet rarely has Geerling's work life been so precarious.
If she can't stay on her husband's health plan, her costs for health insurance offered by the hospital will be $200 a month, more than five times as much as at the airline. There are no pension benefits beyond the option for a 401(k) savings plan and few job protections. She makes $2 an hour less than before; to have a chance at higher pay, she will need to continually train herself in new areas.
Geerling is at the leading edge of changes that herald a new era for millions of people earning around the national average, $17 an hour.
This new era requires that workers shoulder more responsibility and risk on the way to financial security, economists say. It also demands that they be nimble in an increasingly fluid job market. Those who don't obtain some combination of specialized skills, higher education and professional status that can be constantly adapted will be in danger of sliding down the economic ladder to low-paying service jobs, usually without benefits.
Meanwhile, those who secure the middle-class jobs of the 21st century will have to make $17 an hour stretch further than ever as they pay more for health care or risk doing without insurance and assume much or all of the burden for their retirement. . . .
In some ways, Geerling is one of the lucky ones.... At the time she was let go, American Airlines provided training grants as part of the layoff package. The program, which no longer exists, gave her a way to learn new skills in the health care industry, where she had once worked.
Analysts say retraining will be key because tomorrow's middle-class jobs are likely to be enhanced variations of today's lower-wage jobs. Clerical positions keeping medical records, for instance, are being transformed into higher-paying technician jobs that are structured to involve both computer skills and the ability to talk to doctors and nurses.
"You can't be some kid who is good with a computer and get that job anymore," said Anthony Carnevale, senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy. The successful job seeker will be "someone who can do the computer stuff but also knows the business."
It is that combination of technology savvy, analytical thinking and interpersonal skills that could be the magic formula for U.S. workers -- whether the jobs are in health care, education, financial services or any other field. Jobs that involve all three qualities, said Thomas A. Kochan, an MIT management professor, are hard to duplicate with machines or with low-wage workers from abroad, putting the Americans who fill them in a strong position to demand not just good wages, but benefits, too.
"For workers who are performing services for people that can't be made impersonal or sent offshore, those jobs could become much more attractive," he said.
This is a good piece on big issue, and there's a lot more of it. So, please, read the rest.
UPDATE: Via Josh Marshall, here's some other stuff Clinton was right about.
RELATED: And via Nick Denton, The Economist asks, "Whatever happened to the belief that any American could get to the top?"