After the Sequester: Can We Create Better Jobs for Military Employees?

The sequester could result in the first significant cuts to the military budget in years. If it goes through, let’s make sure we avoid mass unemployment by training these veterans to work in growing industries.
army dental technician

Spc. Monte Walker, a dental lab technician, trims a dental model. Photo by Herald Post.

The sequester, a set of massive budget cuts required by the ongoing debt ceiling deal, will slash billions from Medicare, education, and other programs that benefit our society’s neediest if it goes through. That's bad news if you care about those people. But there's also something to like about it: the largest share of the cuts would come from the military.

What would it look like if we created a national program to train laid-off employees of the military for work in other industries?

Many of us have been calling for such cuts for decades, and we should celebrate the possibility of finally getting what we’ve been asking for—even if it comes as the result of Republican demands for austerity. But we should also stand with those who will lose their jobs as a result of defense-budget cuts.

One of the best ways to do that is to demand that those who are laid off receive training that prepares them for future employment. What would it look like if we created a national program to train laid-off employees of the military and its contractors for work in other industries? Such a project would require us do more than offer vague promises about a comeback in Detroit, and offer a plan based around an industry that’s truly positioned to grow.

The good news is many who work for the military and its contractors have advanced technical skills. By transitioning them into another kind of work, we could stake out a place for ourselves in areas where we’re falling behind, like sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and public transportation.

What's more, we could also avoid some of pitfalls of the past.

How deindustrialization helped create modern poverty

History shows that, without effective retraining, workers often remain unemployed or underemployed for a long time when their sectors take a hit.

Sometimes the effects of layoffs are felt for generations, as in the case of deindustrialization. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the number of employees in manufacturing rose steadily, bringing union jobs and middle-class prosperity to places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. Unlike jobs in most other sectors, these positions were open to workers diverse in race, education, and class. One in four African-Americans had a manufacturing job in 1979. By 2008, that number was down to one in 10, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research .

1979 was also the year with the most manufacturing jobs overall: about 23 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number has declined ever since, dropping to about 14 million in 2012. The decline starts much earlier, however, if you look at manufacturing jobs as a percentage of total employment, in which case the peak came in 1953. Again, it’s downhill after that—although recent growth among smaller manufacturers is a bright spot.

The roughly 9 million jobs lost in this sector played a major role in the creation of modern poverty. Sociologist William Julius Wilson has written that deindustrialization was a key factor in the impoverishment of blacks in northern cities. The National Coalition for the Homeless lists among the leading causes of homelessness “eroding work opportunities,” such as deindustrialization. Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, who worked for decades among drug dealers and heroin addicts on the streets of San Francisco and New York City, has described the trade in illegal drugs as a sort of DIY employment program for deindustrialization’s urban victims.

What could a smoother transition look like?

Perhaps we could have spared ourselves some of this suffering if our government—which actively encouraged deindustrialization through its so-called “free trade” policies—had taken steps to help manufacturing workers get into other kinds of work, such as the building and repairing of infrastructure, or the creation of public transportation.

Let’s not pretend that people laid off from the military will easily transition into other kinds of employment without  help.

Any sector of the economy that had a need for medium-skilled workers and was predicted to grow instead of shrink could have been considered. Perhaps, in the course of seeking projects big enough to provide so many jobs, the political will could have been found for long-needed projects such as a high-speed passenger train system.

The benefit to the economy and happiness of our society could have been significant. Millions of families would have spared the trauma and disruption of unemployment. Whole cities and regions could have been spared at least a portion of their long decline. Without a class of semi-permanent unemployed people concentrated in cities, many of our most serious social problems—including homelessness, addiction, and the enormous prison population—would likely be less severe.

This history doesn’t mean we should call any less strongly for cuts to the military budget. As Miriam Pemberton of Foreign Policy in Focus has pointed out, using very conservative numbers, we spend as much on defense as the next 14 countries put together. This benefits weapons manufacturers, takes money away from education and health care, and often results in innocent people being hurt and killed.

We’d all be better off if we could begin transitioning a portion of those who depend on the military for their income into fields like renewable energy, public transportation, and education, where we desperately need to make strides.

On the other hand, let’s not pretend that people laid off from the military will easily transition into other kinds of employment without help. There are a number of fields that must grow as climate change continues to accelerate. With proper training, former employees of the military and its contractors could have their choice of work, in fields that would make the country more prosperous, peaceful, and competitive.

What we need to do now is open the door and invite them in.

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