The primary driver of the current high level and long duration of unemployment continues to be the lack of jobs. The US economy is simply failing to create enough jobs to meet the demand from country’s growing workforce. That is why the focus and thrust of federal policy must be on increasing the number of jobs. The components of the American Jobs Act, taken together, do just that. But the Jobs Act also invests in a program model that has as its goal strengthening the connection between unemployed workers and jobs.
Much has been written about the state models that the Bridge to Work proposal is based on. These programs work as voluntary, temporary on-the-job training programs where unemployed workers can be matched with local employers who have plans to add to their payroll or who have volunteered to provide training opportunities at their work site.
For all the states with Bridge-to-Work-type programs, including North Carolina’s own version, Opportunity NC, it is still too early to determine the impact on labor market outcomes, including whether the program impacted wage levels, the length of unemployment periods and career mobility over time. What’s also important is a better understanding of whether these programs comply with guidance from the US Department of Labor on protecting the rights of program participants as trainees. This is important to ensure that these programs do not violate existing federal laws that protect the rights of workers to fair pay and working conditions, most notably the Fair Labor Standards Act. To comply, a training program must meet six factors, a few of which are: 1) that the training be for the benefit of the trainee; 2) that it not displace existing employees; 3) that employer does not derive immediate advantage from the training of the trainee; and 4) that the trainees are not entitled to a job at conclusion of the training. As the National Employment Law Project wrote in their recent analysis of the American Jobs Act, there are better tools for increasing reemployment.
But perhaps even more importantly, as economist Timothy Bartik, who studies creating good jobs for the unemployed, has noted, Bridge to Work programs likely don’t address the fundamental problem in today’s labor market—the lack of jobs. Without direct, bold efforts to get businesses to add jobs, such an effort could be another bridge to nowhere.