Last week Donald Trump visited a technical college in Wisconsin. He was accompanied by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, several members of Congress, and top officials in his administration. The theme was promoting apprenticeship programs that give workers job specific skills. Trump, along with the rest of his contingent, bemoaned the fact that employers cannot find workers with the skills they need. This theme was picked up by many in the media, including many who are not Republicans, who argued that workers in the U.S. are not getting ahead because they lack the necessary skills.
The striking feature about this argument is how widely it gets repeated, even when the evidence continually shows that it is not true. Just to be clear, it is good that U.S. workers get better training. Other countries, most notably Germany and the Nordic countries, do a much better job of training workers who do not get college degrees than the United States.
It is also true that any individual worker will almost certainly be better off in the labor market if they could acquire more skills. Certainly the best advice to a young person completing high school would be to try to go to college or alternatively to get the training needed to be a physical therapist, dental hygienist, or some other moderately well-paying professional. Insofar as the government can facilitate this education and training it will be good for both the workers and the economy as a whole.
But that is very different from claiming that the main reason that millions of workers are unemployed or out of the labor force is that they don’t have the right skills. This claim is endlessly put forward, in both the United States and elsewhere, even in contexts where it is obviously not true.